Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Supes invite "Community" to $30 breakfast

The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors has invited the Community to have breakfast with them January 26, at the Doubletree Hotel in Rohnert Park. Chairman Tim Smith will describe "The State of the County" at the second annual "Report to the Community" breakfast forum. The invitation at the Sonoma County Economic Development Board webpage [] reads,

"Dear Community Member

Highlighting the key opportunities, challenges, and initiatives facing Sonoma County in the coming year, the 2005 State of the County: Annual Report to the Community breakfast forum is a chance for you to learn how the major issues facing Sonoma County may affect your life and work. It is our hope that the information presented at this event will assist you in your own work within our community. In addition to the "State of the County" speech by the Chair of the Board of Supervisors, the event will feature a report of numerous local economic indicators, a Q & A session, and exhibits by county agencies.

We look forward to sharing our vision with you for the coming year and cooperating with you to achieve positive results for our community. Information on reserving seats or tables of 8 may be found by [sic] on the link below. Reservation deadline is January 19."

The webpage link takes you to a copy of the actual fancy invitation, which bears the official multi-colored Sonoma County seal: .

The Supes didn't send me a personal invitation, and they probably didn't send you one either. Not many ordinary citizens can afford to spend $30 for a hotel breakfast--or sponsor a table for eight, at $300--to hear Tim Smith talk about the County economy.

Yet it appears that anybody who has the money and registers by January 19 can attend their breakfast forum. Make your check or credit card payment to the EDB Foundation. What's the EDB Foundation? Good question--the EDB home page doesn't say, and neither do the search features at the County and EDB pages.

California's Brown Act requires that meetings of elected and appointed public officials be open, public, and free; and members of the public who might attend can't be required to identify themselves in advance. Thus it appears the very invitation, not to mention the private breakfast forum itself, may violate the Brown Act.

The Supes can legally attend many public and private events together where they don't do the County's business. They can all attend the same church on Sunday. They can attend the symphony, shop at the mall, and play golf together. They can even go to local political events, so long as they aren't participating as officials.

But in this case, it's quite clear the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors is inviting "Community Member(s)" to its "2005 State of the County: 2nd Annual Report to the Community". Sonoma County's principal elected officials are sponsoring an exhibition and forum, at which their Chairman will report to the Community on their activities. The event is under the auspices of the Economic Development Board, a major Sonoma County Department.

It's clearly an official Board event, even if only Tim Smith and one other Supervisor--less than a quorum--attend their breakfast forum. And if three Supes are present, it's arguably a "meeting" of the Board, as defined by the Brown Act.

But local politicians have demonstrated a sneaky way of violating the Brown Act, and getting away with it. If private citizens show up and demand free admission to an event like this, they are ushered in. They may not get breakfast, but they can attend the meeting.

Never mind that most citizens never hear about the meeting. The Press Democrat may report the "State of the County" forum as news, but the story won't mention the Brown Act issues. Never mind that private citizens who might have attended didn't go, because they weren't invited--or because they couldn't afford a $30 breakfast.

I suspect the fundamental problem is the Supes think of the EDB as private--a sort of Sonoma County Chamber of Commerce, run for the benefit of private business, but paid for by the taxpayers. 2005 State of the County: Annual Report to the Community appears to demonstrate that when local politicians talk about "The Community", they mean the business community. This event looks like a classic example of local politicians defining "The Community" as only the special interests they know personally, communicate with, and represent.


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