Stepping in Brown

June 28, 2012

Here is today’s column in the Star newspaper, wherein I discuss my community’s obsession with all things legal…

I never thought I’d say this, but I miss practicing law for a living. I miss the money and the intellectual stimulation and seeing middle-aged men in business suits, rather than in board shorts and flip-flops. And did I mention the money?

Still, I don’t miss dinner parties where all the invitees are lawyers, with conversation devolving into war stories about difficult clients, impossible opposing counsel and the time they got that continuance and really stuck it to the other side.

It’s the same in any industry, I suppose; I’ve suffered through several prolonged dinner party conversations about the water table here in the Napa Valley. But even the wine industry’s most boring exchanges about malolactic fermentation and “punching down the cap” beat extended discussions of ERISA law and Sarbanes-Oxley compliance.

Which is why it’s a bit off-putting to be hearing so much law-talk in town these days. It suddenly seems like everybody is a legal analyst preparing for their guest shot on Court TV. I blame “Law & Order,” “CSI” and the latest sensational televised trial for making every man a would-be Matlock. And I marvel at how people having only a sketchy familiarity with the Constitution can explain, in subparts, the unconstitutionality of the health care mandate.

I frequently encounter amateur employment lawyers outlining the repercussions of City Hall layoffs, and hobbyist land-use experts opining on zoning restrictions affecting the latest hotel/office wannabuild. But most off-putting are those dabblers engaged in mind-numbingly dull discussions of the Byzantine Brown Act.

The Ralph M. Brown Act, aka the “Sunshine Law,” aka the “Full Employment for Government Attorneys Act,” aka the “Last Gasp of Relevance for Newspaper Editors Law,” is an undeniably important protection, guaranteeing citizens proper access to their leaders’ deliberative process. Certainly our representatives should not be permitted to conduct business in secret or render decisions without public input and scrutiny. But the act is also hopelessly complex, easy to trip over, and potentially dire in consequences.

Ever wonder why we don’t have more people willing to step forward as candidates for local office? The Brown Act squelches volunteerism, threatening criminal prosecution of hapless councilfolk who violate its terms. Luckily, our local leaders and their constituencies can now add “Brown Act Expert” to their legal resumes, simply by viewing the Planning Commission’s recent “Brown Act for Dummies” presentation via streaming video.

Its former chairman having been accused of Brown Act violations, the Planning Commission was sent to the principal’s office for a stern hygiene lecture intended to clean up its act. City attorneys (we have several, apparently), armed with a battery of PowerPoint slides, led planners and a rapt television audience on a two-hour slog through the law’s statutory framework in theory and practice. The commissioners were well behaved and took their medicine without sugar, cognizant surely that none of them wished to end up in the clink.

Yet despite the educational merits of the evening, I found its entertainment value waning after the first hour and a half. The highlight came when chairman-elect Matthew Heil, always a source of sensible questions, inquired whether the Brown Act applied in the case of emergencies. What, he wondered, would happen if the city were threatened with major flooding — could it really be that City Council members couldn’t confer to save the town?

No, came the emphatic expert advice — there are no exceptions, although a scheduled meeting could be adjourned if the building was underwater. In that case, presumably, the meeting could continue with a quorum of commissioners in a rowboat, so long as interested citizens were issued comparable flotation devices.

It left me wishing that Matt, normally so thorough, had asked the obvious follow-up questions:

• What if a giant meteor is headed for Earth? Can commissioners yell “Duck!” even if Armageddon is not on the published agenda?

• What if Martians invade St. Helena? Are they entitled to the same notice of hearings as local citizens? Same question re: people who only live here during the summer.

• What if an enormous sinkhole caused while planting the Carnegie Building’s outsized palm trees suddenly swallows up half the council? Can the Public Works Department privately debate ways to publicly blame the Tree Committee?

• What if a councilmember is tarred and feathered by locals for violating the Brown Act? Can fellow members hose him down without being charged as accessories-after-the-fact? and

• What if a tsunami sweeps away the city’s legal advisers and their flowcharts? Do the survivors still need to follow their advice?

These and other questions will have to await the next properly noticed special session. In the meantime, if you require advice about this or any other pressing legal issue affecting our city, please consult the many local experts readily available at the street corner, coffee shop or grocery line near you.

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