A Brown Act case in the courts for more than two years has CalAware joining the Los Angeles Times in suing Metrolink, the Los Angeles area’s major transportation agency, for violating bedrock principles of the open meetings law. The litigation, now pending decision in the California Court of Appeal, challenges the legality of a September 2015 “emergency” teleconference meeting in which Metrolink’s board of directors discussed a single item of business in closed session. The topic was a design flaw in the cab cars’ “cowcatcher” plows that Metrolink had learned about during an investigation into a February 2015 train crash.
Metrolink argued that if the design flaw became known to potential bad actors, they could exploit it for criminal or terrorist purposes. Therefore, it relied on the Brown Act’s exemption allowing a closed session to discuss “matters posing a threat to the security of public buildings, a threat to the security of essential public services, including water, drinking water, wastewater treatment, natural gas service, and electric service, or a threat to the public’s right of access to public services or public facilities.” The board also ignored other Brown Act safeguards meant to ensure that teleconferences and emergency meetings are given as much advance notice to the public as possible.
At a hearing in November 2016. the trial court denied the Times/CalAware case in its entirety. Judge Amy D. Hogue ruled that Metrolink had the discretion to determine whether there was a real “emergency” situation that allowed it to go into closed session without notice to the public, and whether there was a real situation posing a threat to Metrolink facilities and its riders. She ruled that she would not substitute her judgment for Metrolink’s. Since she found there was an emergency situation, she ruled that Metrolink was excused from complying with any of the Brown Act’s other requirements, including the rules for holding meetings by teleconference.
Seeking to support CalAware’s challenge as amici curiae in the Court of Appeal are the First Amendment Coalition, the California News Publishers Association, the Southern California News Group, the Center for Investigative Reporting and the Northern California Society of Professional Journalists. No amicus brief has been filed to support Metrolink’s position, possibly because local government associations recognize the trial court’s subversive reading of the Brown Act as extreme and unlikely to survive appeal.