Don’t ask, don’t tell at City Hall

City Council-approved … in secret.

City Council-approved … in secret.

Kudos to the Sacramento City Council for voting to support the rights of gays and lesbians to marry. Too bad they were so half-assed about it.

How else would you describe the council’s decision earlier this month to hold a secret vote to join a lawsuit against the state’s ban on same-sex marriages?

Back on October 16, the council had a chance to vote, in public, on whether or not to join a lawsuit aimed at overturning parts of the state code that bar marriage recognition for same-sex couples. The lawsuit is being brought by the city of San Francisco and will be heard next year in the California Supreme Court. More than a dozen other California cities, including Los Angeles, Long Beach, San Jose and Oakland, have joined, filing friend-of-the-court briefs asking the high court to strike down the state’s definition of marriage as being between one man and one woman.

The question of whether or not to join the lawsuit was on the council agenda the morning of October 16. Anyone who wanted to could come to City Hall and get their two minutes to speak.

And since anti-gay activists from the Church of the Divide can read, they did notice the matter on the council agenda. Maybe a dozen of them came down to City Hall to protest that rainy October day, and some signed up to speak against the proposal.

But no sooner had the evangelicals unfurled their “Marriage = 1 man + 1 woman” banner along I Street in front of City Hall than the matter was mysteriously pulled from that day’s agenda. No explanation was given, leaving the protesters and this reporter scratching their soggy heads.

Only later did it come out that the council decided to pass the motion in a November 6 closed-door meeting, without any public hearing or public input, without any way of knowing the matter was being considered until well after the fact.

But why? The state’s open-meeting law does allow elected governmental panels to meet in private on matters concerning litigation, but that law does not require the bodies to do so.

The rule of thumb is to do the public business in public, and have a good reason for making exceptions. Closed session typically is reserved for discussing personnel issues, contract negotiations, lawsuits involving the city as a main party or when someone’s privacy needs to be protected.

None of those exceptions would seem to apply here, so Upfront asked around City Hall: “What gives?” The answer: “None of your business.”

“That’s an option open to the City Council, and that’s what they chose to do,” assistant City Attorney Rich Archibald told SN&R. So Upfront asked Mayor Heather Fargo’s special assistant Sue O’Brien, and got a similar blow off. “It is the practice of this City Council to handle matters involving litigation in closed session,” said O’Brien.

The question of joining this lawsuit is not much of a legal issue—not one that requires our elected leaders to meet in private with the city’s legal staff. It is, however, a very important political statement.

In voting to join the suit, the City Council signed the whole city of Sacramento, all half a million of us, on as supporters of this particular lawsuit. Like a lot of Sacramentans, Upfront happens to be down with that cause. But it would be nice to be asked first.

Maybe there were really good reasons to do it this way—and Upfront would love to hear them. But “because we can,” is not a reason. “Because we can” is just a bad attitude.

That wasn’t the attitude in San Diego, which voted to join this lawsuit after a very contentious public meeting. Things went more smoothly in the city of Davis, but there, too, the matter was on the public agenda.

As one of Upfront’s louder, prouder co-workers put it, “If it wasn’t homophobic, I’d say the council were being wussies.”