The Los Angeles County district attorney has found that the Los Angeles Board of Airport Commissioners was in violation of the state’s open meetings law when it discussed the unscheduled issue of runway safety at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) during a meeting last month.
In a January 4th letter to the airport commission, District Attorney Steve Cooley said that the commission’s discussion concerning runway safety on the LAX north airfield, which was not listed on the agenda of the December 17th meeting, violated the Ralph M. Brown Act. The Brown Act, which governs meeting access for public agencies, states that the public must be allowed to address the agency on items within its jurisdiction at meetings.
“After careful review of the materials and the applicable law, we conclude that the process followed by the Board of Airport Commissioners at its meeting on December 17th did not meet the procedural requirements of the Brown Act,” Cooley wrote in the letter. “The issue of airport safety is clearly critical, and we do not for a moment suggest that the commissioners acted with anything other than the best interests of public safety in mind. However, the Brown Act protects the public’s right to participate in those same discussions.”
The district attorney’s letter did not identify any discipline to be taken against the commission.
The Brown Act requires a public agency to post an agenda containing a description of each item to be discussed at least 72 hours before the meeting. No action or discussion may be taken on any item not appearing on the posted agenda, but board members may briefly respond to questions posed by the public, according to the Brown Act.
At the meeting last month, airport commissioners discussed a topic that did not appear on the posted agenda, including the desire to expedite the process regarding north runway safety issues, particularly the environ- mental impact report (EIR) process, according to the district attorney report.
Board of Airport Commissioners president Alan Rothenberg said at the meeting that there would be no action taken on the unscheduled discussion but he opened the topic up to discussion by each of the board members.
“I want to make it clear that there is no proposed action to be taken and therefore it’s not formally on the agenda,” Rothenberg said at the December 17th meeting.
No formal action was taken on the issue, but after each of the commission members addressed the topic, some made suggestions to staff about what questions they wanted to have answered in the staff report for the commission meeting Monday, January 14th.
While the Brown Act allows a public agency to give a brief description of items to be discussed at the meeting, the Board of Airport Commissioners’ discussion on runway safety “far exceeded the brief comments permitted by law,” the district attorney wrote.
Responding to the district attorney’s findings, airport commission vice president Val Velasco said the “line is blurry” in regards to a violation of the Brown Act. The commission did not take any action on the matter but asked staff to find out more information on how to improve runway safety, she said.
The commissioners addressed the issue because they are concerned about safety on the north airfield and they don’t want to have backroom discussions on the issue, Velasco said.
“We want to protect the public from backroom discussions,” she said.
The commission respects the Brown Act, which allows the public to have notice about which items the board will take action on at the meeting, Velasco said.
“The public has the right to know what we’re doing and to have notice about it,” she said.
Officials at Los Angeles World Airports, the city agency that operates LAX, said they were pleased that the district attorney’s office recognized that the commission was trying to address public safety at the meeting.
“We’re pleased that the district attorney’s office recognized that the airport commission’s discussion was the inadvertent result of an attempt to respond to a significant public safety issue,” airport spokeswoman Nancy Castles said. “We also agree with the district attorney’s office that the Board of Airport Commissioners and Los Angeles World Airports are mindful of the public’s right to participate in the decision-making process and are committed to actively pursue matters of public safety concerns.”
Denny Schneider, president of the Alliance for a Regional Solution to Airport Congestion (ARSAC), said he was not surprised that the airport commission had addressed the north runway issue when it was not on the meeting agenda last month.
“They’re obviously in favor of expanding LAX north, regardless of what it does to the community and regardless of the need to do so,” Schneider said.
The decision by the district attorney shows the airport commissioners that people are paying attention to their actions at meet- ings, Schneider said.
“They have to realize that the public is watching them,” he said.
Velasco said the airport commission expects to have a discussion on runway safety posted on the agenda for the meeting Monday, January 14th, when the board also plans to replay the audio recording of the discussion from last month’s meeting.