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David Gauny: The great Santa Clarita library takeover brownout

SCV Voices

Posted: October 3, 2010 4:55 a.m.
Updated: October 3, 2010 4:55 a.m.

Editor's note: This column has been modified from its previous posting to reflect the dispute over the date of the LSSI proposal. Mr. Gauny was consulted in the process.

A famous scene in the 1980 film "Caddyshack" involved a Baby Ruth candy bar floating in a crowded swimming pool. With the theme from "Jaws" playing in the background, swimmers mistook the bar for feces and fled for the exits in hilarious panic.

This scene replayed during my tenure on the Valencia Summit homeowners' association board a few years back. Every few months or so, management would call the board members to advise us a more "authentic" Baby Ruth was afloat in our community pool.

Unfortunately, HOA reality was less amusing than the comedy film. A professional was needed to identify and remove the object, clean the pool and kill remaining germs with chemicals. The event also forced closure of the pool, but public concern was of paramount importance.

In time, the prankster retired this practice, but not before our board adopted a humorous code name for the event: "brown out."

I am reminded of this when considering the Santa Clarita City Council's recent action to remove our libraries from the Los Angeles County system and place them under the control of LSSI, a private company from Maryland. Here, too, a trick was pulled and the city may have violated a law of a similar name, with consequences of a similar stench.

California's Brown Act open-meeting law was passed in 1953 to guarantee the right to public attendance and participation in local legislative meetings.

Attorney General Bill Lockyer cited case law in a 2003 revision: "The act has been interpreted to mean that all of the deliberative processes by legislative bodies, including discussion, debate and the acquisition of information, be open and available for public scrutiny."

Our city appears to have violated this - and it stinks.

It started when Councilwoman Laurie Ender suggested discussion of library takeover be put on the agenda in July and then, with virtually no discussion on the matter, the council passed the measure with a 4-1 vote at its next meeting.

People wondered how the City Council ignored an overflowing chamber of roughly 200 citizens and the 20-1 ratio of speakers in opposition to the idea. Thoughtful and relevant questions from nearly 60 speakers kept the meeting going past midnight, but the council offered only vague responses before dismissing them wholesale.

Although facts on financials were missing and details on affected services remained sketchy, the council also rejected requests for more time. There was simply no way for anyone to make an educated decision with the information at hand.

A Brown Act complaint soon followed claiming inappropriate discussions prior to the public hearing. City Attorney Carl Newton responded that there was no proof of unauthorized discussion, adding that an ad hoc committee consisting of council members Marsha McLean and Ender had been working on the issue.

Unfortunately, the ad hoc library committee Newton referenced was created for the Newhall library construction, not library takeovers. The Brown Act mandates that if a committee's original purpose changes substantially, this also must be agendized. That never happened.

At the July 13 City Council meeting, Ender requested the takeover idea come before council.

"Most importantly," she said, "we want to see extensive outreach among stakeholders, residents and community leaders over the next several weeks."

A Request for Proposal was published on Aug. 8 and 11 as required, and LSSI was revealed as the only qualified vendor just a few days later.

The cover letter of LSSI's 85-page technical proposal was dated June 10 - two full months before the city ever requested it. In it, the request for proposal number the city supposedly didn't publish until August is also referenced. Oops.

Every page of the proposal besides the cover letter is dated Aug. 16. City Manager Ken Pulskamp said the June 10 date was a typo, a failure to correct the date of a form letter used for a previous proposal.

But the date, coupled with the non-existent outreach to stakeholders and the hasty bidding process, suggests that without public knowledge or council direction, staff resources were being used to streamline approval of LSSI's complex proposal.

Why? Call it a Brown Act violation or a brown out. Both apply here.

This issue is not about disgruntled union workers. It is about a city that is increasingly unwilling or unable to police itself, and too many public servants who are convinced they know better than those they serve.

Frankly, I don't know if a library takeover is good for our city, but I do want a fair chance to hear the facts and decide for myself. I oppose anyone who cheats me out of that.

Maybe we should deal with Brown Act violations the same way we do brown-out pranks: Have an outsider identify and remove the offending objects, clean the pool and destroy resulting germs. Whatever it takes to make public concern paramount again.

David Gauny is a Valencia resident and former Santa Clarita City Council candidate. His column reflects his own views and not necessarily those of The Signal.



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