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Fresno County sued for holding private meetings on juvenile justice reform

Fresno County is being sued by a non-profit group for holding meetings on juvenile justice reform behind closed doors which the plaintiffs say should have been made public.

(CN) — A lawsuit filed Thursday by the non-profit Center for Leadership, Equity and Research alleges Fresno County violated the Brown Act by developing a plan to reform how juvenile justice is carried out in the county without soliciting input from the public.

The case was filed in Fresno County Superior Court against the county itself, as well as the Fresno County Juvenile Justice Coordination Council, the Fresno County Realignment Subcommittee and Kirk Haynes, the committee’s chief probation officer.

The Center claims the defendants “committed frequent and repeated violations of the Brown Act in developing Fresno County’s Realignment Plan,” according to the complaint. More specifically, they say the county’s Juvenile Justice Coordinating Council first violated the Brown Act during a meeting on Oct. 29, 2020 when it formed the Realignment Subcommittee without providing notice to the general public.

“Following that meeting, the Realignment Subcommittee proceeded to convene at least eleven non-public meetings to develop Fresno County’s Realignment Plan, in total violation of the Brown Act,” claims the plaintiff in its complaint.

The Ralph M. Brown Act, passed in 1953, is intended to ensure the public’s right to attend and participate in local legislative meetings such as city councils, county boards and other local government entities. The law bars local legislatures from conducting business behind closed doors, and only applies to California city and county entities, such as the defendants in the case, rather than state or federal agencies.

“As a result of these violations, Fresno County’s Realignment Plan was developed without community input, participation, oversight, or transparency,” the complaint states. “The plan itself was not shared with the public until the day the Juvenile Justice Coordinating Council voted to approve it.”

The subcommittee’s creation stems from California’s Juvenile Justice Realignment Act passed in 2020 requiring that the state’s remaining juvenile detention facilities be closed and its juvenile justice system be placed under the jurisdiction of individual counties. To facilitate the transfer, the act mandates that counties enact a local planning process and establish a “realignment subcommittee” to operate under each county’s multiagency juvenile justice coordinating council, which would be responsible for developing a juvenile justice realignment plan in line with the act.

“Each county’s realignment subcommittee is required to develop the county’s Realignment Plan, a comprehensive document intended to guide how the county will allocate financial resources to respond to youth charged with serious offenses,” notes the complaint. “The plan must address the ‘facilities, programs, placements, services, supervision and reentry strategies that are needed to provide appropriate rehabilitation and supervision services’ for the realigned youth population.”

Creation of both the subcommittee and its realignment plan are pre-conditions for countries to receive funds from the state’s new Juvenile Justice Realignment Block Grant. The grant is intended to help counties support the supervision and care of youth who would have previously been in state juvenile facilities.

Despite the county’s acknowledgment that both its Juvenile Justice Coordinating Council and its Realignment Subcommittee are subject to the Brown Act, it has committed numerous violations by holding closed meetings and developing its realignment plans in private, according to the plaintiff.

Minutes for the council’s Oct. 29 meeting didn’t indicate plans to establish either the County’s Realignment Subcommittee or its membership during the meeting, and merely listed a number of other topics on the table for discussion that day, according to the complaint.

The council’s meeting’s agenda did note its intention to discuss assignments for three other subcommittees, but made no mention of assignments for the Realignment Subcommittee specifically. The agenda also neglected to provide notice of any proposed actions by the council with regards to the Realignment Subcommittee or its membership.

“The meeting agenda did not include an opportunity for members of the public to directly address the Juvenile Justice Coordinating Council on the issue of the Realignment Subcommittee or its membership before, or during, consideration of the item,” states the complaint. “According to the draft meeting minutes, no public comment was taken.”

On top of that, the plaintiff claims that Kirk Haynes, the committee’s chief probation officer and a named defendant in the case, engaged in private email communications with council members to select additional members for the Realignment Subcommittee, which also should have been subject to public input in line with the Brown Act.

After the Oct. 29 meeting, Haynes convened 11 teleconference meetings of the Realignment Subcommittee between November 2020 and May 2021, none of which complied with the Brown Act’s open and public meeting requirements, according to the complaint.

The plaintiff claims these meetings were instead emailed directly to certain committee members and took place through the Microsoft Teams platform, and weren’t posted in a way that would allow members of the public to participate. Additionally, no notes or records of any kind were kept for three of the meetings, and no written agendas or attendance records were kept for any of them.

The subcommittee’s realignment plan wasn’t made public until it was already fully drafted, and was first presented to the public on April 13, 2021 during an open meeting of the Juvenile Justice Coordinating Council. The council next met on July 16, 2021, with a publicly posted agenda and draft meeting minutes stating that the council continues to meet monthly, despite no subsequent meeting minutes being publicly posted for either the Juvenile Justice Coordinating Council or the Realignment Subcommittee.

“On information and belief, groups of Realignment Subcommittee members continue to discuss and deliberate Subcommittee business in non-public meetings,” according to the complaint.

The plaintiff seeks a declaratory judgment and a writ of mandate instructing the defendants to adhere to the requirements of the Brown Act.

Representatives for the Center for Leadership, Equity and Research as well as for Fresno County were not immediately available for comment.

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