Saturday morning, Pasadena City Attorney Michelle Bagneris and I were two of the three panelists — city head librarian Jan Sanders was the other — at a forum at the Neighborhood Church on openness in government sponsored by the League of Women Voters as part of a celebration of Sunshine Week, the annual homage to governmental non-secrecy.
Since the city has been embroiled in a spat over just that — its secrecy — it seemed like a great time to question Bagneris on the issue, and a very germane topic for the audience of about 100 passionate locals who turned out.
Most of us indeed appeared to find it interesting. For instance, former City Councilman Sid Tyler came to the event precisely because he had read in the Pasadena Star-News about the city manager and city attorney keeping secret the names of members of a public panel that has been formed to help select Pasadena’s next police chief. Sid said he was very disturbed by the secrecy and wanted to find out more about it.
But moderator Pete Peterson was more interested in telling stories about things that happened in public process in Humboldt County and Kauai than something that is going on right here, right now in Pasadena.
When I sought to continue to press Bagneris on the issue of why she considers it legal for the names to be hidden until after the selection process is over, Peterson cut me off.
Here is a transcript of the small part of the morning in which we were able to discuss the secret panel:
Michelle Bagneris: There was a request for the names of the panelists for the police chief interview, which will be conducted sometime this month I believe. Using that balancing test, among other rationales as well, it was determined that at this time, before the interviews are conducted, the public’s interest in non-disclosure outweighs the public’s interest in disclosure. That doesn’t mean that the names will never be released. It just means that, before the interviews, to avoid those interviewers being lobbied perhaps or pressured or … the interviewers don’t know who the candidates are, they don’t know who the other interviewers are, they won’t know that until the day of the interviews. It’s a process that the city employs for its hiring … It’s a process that while it’s public, some portions of it are private. And that’s using in some respects the privacy issues involved, in some respects the balancing of disclosure of information at an appropriate time … While I am doing my job of trying to protect all of your interests, I am doing it with all these balls in the air.
Larry Wilson: But Michelle … The question that will be asked, and as long as we are talking about freedom of information it ought to be, is that you could take that argument –that this body is secret — and take it all the way up to the City Council. Why should we know who our City Council members are, since they can be lobbied while something’s going on. So this is not something that is going to be held up in court … because the logic is absurd.
MB: No, because the council members are elected, and that is established as a public process. …
LW: OK, then let’s say the Planning Commission, which is not elected. By that logic, it would be better if they were secret, and would serve for a year, then after that year, we will disclose who they are, because then they could not be lobbied …
MB: No, I think there again — first of all, there are statutory requirements, Brown Act requirements with respect to legislative bodies. This isn’t a legislative body; it’s a group of individuals selected by the city manager. It’s a process for hiring, an interview process, and I think quite frankly it would be held up in court based on the distinction of what their role is …
LW: OK, then not the Planning Commission. The Arts & Culture Commission. They are not a legislative body …
Pete Peterson: Larry, just so you know, we have are other questions.
LW: Right, but this goes to show how important public information is …
PP cuts me off.
In response to a later question from the audience:
MB: Whenever their involvement is completed, then there will be a disclosure of the names. The goal is to ensure that their remarks are not a popularity contest. It’s a professional evaluation of the candidates’ credentials. As many people here are aware, there has been a very public process in terms of the of the city manager soliciting and considering Web site comments and direct comments to him.