A Los Angeles County Superior Court judge ruled Friday that the L.A. Memorial Coliseum Commission disobeyed the state's open meeting law when it held nine closed meetings regarding its lease with the University of Southern California.
Judge Luis Lavin ruled in favor of the Los Angeles Times and Californians Aware, a group that advocates for the improvement and compliance of public forum law.
The Coliseum commission is reviewing the decision and has the option of bringing the matter to an appeals court.
Jeffrey Glasser, an attorney for the L.A. Times, told KPCC that the newspaper sued the commission after it failed to provide certain documents that should have been released under the public records act and that it held closed meetings discussing USC's lease. The controversial lease gave USC most of the control of the Coliseum, the Sports Arena and their sales, according to the L.A. Times.
Judge Lavin said in the ruling that "the facts lead directly to the inference that the commission's members had reached their consensus about the terms and wisdom of the deal with USC through nonpublic discussions" before their May 14, 2012, vote in an open session.
The commission had tried to argue that the closed meetings dealt with the price and terms of payment of a lease of a property, which are exempted from the state's open meeting law. But the judge said he believes that more than those topics were discussed and the fact that those other topics were discussed in a closed session "were improper."
The ruling said the Coliseum commission must record its closed door meetings for three years. In addition, the judge ruled the commission must release the public records documents the Times had requested.
"Certainly the public has a legitimate and substantial interest in scrutinizing the process leading to the commission's deal with USC for the use and management of the iconic Los (Angeles) Memorial Coliseum and the Los Angeles Sports Arena to ensure that the decision was not based on political favoritism or some other criteria that do not serve the public," Lavin wrote in the ruling.
"To paraphrase the late Justice Louis Brandeis, sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants," Lavin wrote. "Whether the commission gave away the store for free will be for others to judge and is beyond the scope of this lawsuit."
The commission also has to pay the legal fees of the Times and Californians Aware, which could approach roughly $100,000, said Terry Francke, general counsel for Californians Aware.
Francke said his group joined in the lawsuit because agencies statewide have used an exception in the state's open meeting law, known as the Brown Act, to "cover much more secrecy than is allowed."
"I hope it will help the public as an example of how the courts can enforce the rights of people to know what elected and appointed bodies are doing," Francke said.
Thomas Faughnan, legal counsel for the Coliseum commission, said the group will be reviewing the decision and making recommendations to the commission at its meeting next month. He called the ruling "disappointing."
Editor’s note: Attorney Jeffrey Glasser has also represented KPCC on unrelated legal matters.
This story has been updated. An earlier version of this story said the Times asked for Coliseum commission documents under the Freedom of Information Act. It was under the California Public Records Act.