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Censure: It must be public

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Posted: Tuesday, July 1, 2003 10:00 pm

We're not sure whether Mayor Susan Hitchcock should be censured. We are sure that any discussion of censure can and must be done in the public, not behind closed doors.

But, unless some cool heads prevail tonight, that's exactly what the council appears ready to do.

The council agenda calls for members to adjourn to closed session to discuss something titled, "People of the State of California and the City of Lodi vs. M&P Investments, et al."

The long title refers to the elaborate and costly legal battle the city is fighting against insurance companies to pay for a cleanup of groundwater pollution.

Councilman Keith Land wants to censure Hitchcock because he feels she has, through verbal indiscretions, jeopardized the city's chances of winning that lawsuit. He is also miffed because Hitchcock announced publicly that the council had secretly voted not to attend mediation sessions related to the lawsuit.

It's possible the council will in fact discuss that important lawsuit tonight under the aforementioned title.

But it's quite clear, from comments by Land himself, that the item of censure is set to come up under that listing, too.

That's not just deceptive. It's illegal.

A top open meetings expert contacted by the News-Sentinel, Jim Ewert, counsel for the California Newspaper Publishers Association, said any discussion of censure must be done in public session.

Period.

Ewert cites the Brown Act, the state's open meeting law, which demands that the public's business be done in public, with only rare exceptions.

The Brown Act does allow closed sessions to discuss litigation. So if the council does indeed wish to discuss City of Lodi vs. M&P Investments behind closed doors, fine. But as soon as the talk drifts toward censure, the city attorney, as Ewert properly underlines, needs to call time-out. He needs to shift the discussion to a future agenda, where it must be clearly described and set for public, not private, discussion.

Perhaps Lodi needs to take a cue from city officials in Galt. There, council members censured former Councilwoman Christina De La Cruz for allegedly removing confidential documents from city hall.

Whether the censure was right or wrong, the council rightly held the whole messy discussion in public.

Censure is a public statement by elected officials condemning the actions of a colleague. It carries no demotion, no fine, no real penalty. However, it would be an act of historic proportions in Lodi, where no elected official, at least in recent memory, has suffered such a sharp rebuke.

If censure prevails, Land says he will call for Hitchcock to be removed as mayor. (She would continue to serve on the council.)

The censure of a sitting mayor that could lead to her ouster should not be undertaken lightly. Much is at stake, not the least of which is community and council image, which has generally been unstained by such rancorous episodes.

But if censure it is to be undertaken, it must be done in full public view, not in a back room at the Carnegie Forum.


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