Our View: Open doors can build trust in government
Board of Supervisors Chairman Ed Scofield closed Tuesday’s public commentary on cannabis cultivation by expressing his gratitude for an “extremely respectful public hearing” and actually telling audience members, “I’m proud of you.”
That sentiment was refreshing to hear, considering what’s been the typical tone of such hearings on this highly controversial and contentious issue in our community.
It seems, from comments shared by the public and members of the Community Advisory Group, most feel the county is making real progress toward establishing our community standards on cannabis cultivation and the 10 committee meetings played a key role in doing so.
However, we found a few comments at the opening of Tuesday’s talk to be troubling, in particular discussion of the Brown Act and how it would apply to further work on this issue.
Members of the advisory group want to quickly get in place regulations that Nevada County cannabis farmers can understand and meet in what will be a highly competitive new marketplace statewide.
Along those lines, Supervisor Hank Weston asked if rather than creating a “blue ribbon commission” appointed by the supervisors — which would be subject to Brown Act requirements — could the board request “technical input” from advisers to help craft a new cultivation ordinance without Brown Act discussion.
“It depends on how it’s structured,” County Counsel Allison Barratt-Green said. “If the desire is to get technical input from individuals, whether on the CAG or not, I would recommend that be done through staff if you want to reduce the bureaucracy of Brown Act issues.”
Weston said if staff members wanted to bounce ideas or questions off such advisers, “I don’t want them to be confined from saying what’s on their mind and talking amongst themselves without getting involved in the Brown Act issue.”
Tuesday’s meeting wasn’t the first time supervisors have taken issue with the Brown Act when it comes to crafting county cannabis cultivation rules. In fact, the final two community advisory group meetings were planned to be closed to the public, until The Union questioned that decision and whether it met Brown Act legal requirements.
And in the wake of voters defeating 2016’s Measure W, which would have banned outdoor cultivation, supervisors also planned to close the doors on subsequent meetings with cannabis advocates. But, although there was no Brown Act requirement to hold open meetings, supervisors reversed course and allowed the media to attend.
The purpose of the Ralph M. Brown Act, the state law protecting the public’s right to attend and participate in meetings of legislative bodies, is stated within the law:
“The people of this State do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies which serve them. The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know. The people insist on remaining informed so that they may retain control over the instruments they have created.”
The Brown Act outlines requirements in public notice of meetings, posting of agendas and open access to them, unless held in closed session under specific allowed exceptions. It also explains what public bodies are subject to the act and what communications among officials are allowable under the law.
What it does not do is preclude officials from speaking their mind.
But it does requires them to do so in public, when conducting the public’s business. And we’d argue that any “bureaucracy” that comes as a result of protecting the public’s right to know is worth the transparency it affords us to build trust in government, something so often sorely lacking these days.
In the case of open access to community advisory group meetings, the result appears to have been an engaged and informed public that was able to follow the process from start to finish.
Mark Schaefer, a member of the group and the Nevada County Cannabis Alliance’s executive committee, said he wanted the group to help educate the community about cannabis and destroy stereotypes about the grow community — goals, he told The Union, that were achieved.
In recent weeks, Schaefer and Scofield each authored op-eds published by The Union that seemed to strike a new tone in our community’s cannabis conversation, emphasizing the importance of building upon agreement as opposed to drawing battle lines over where they disagree.
Although there is still much work to be done, as Scofield noted Tuesday, the civil conversation seemed a break with the past.
If such an approach should continue, keeping the community informed through open government — as the Brown Act intends — only helps build trust among all parties involved.
The weekly Our View column represents the consensus opinion of The Union Editorial Board, a group of editors and writers from The Union, as well as informed community members. Contact the board at EditBoard@TheUnion.com.
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