CA governor’s invite to lawmakers draws scrutiny

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SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger invited California lawmakers to lunch Wednesday after his State of the State address, but his office refused to allow the public to attend.

Legal experts said the meeting constituted a violation of state law if a quorum of the 120-member Legislature were present and business was discussed.

Schwarzenegger invited all members of the Assembly and Senate to the steak-or-salmon lunch at the private Sutter Club near the state Capitol.

Others seen entering the event included political consultants and influential friends of the governor, including California Chamber of Commerce President Allan Zaremberg and Danny Curtin, a carpenters union leader who frequently accompanies the governor to photo opportunities.

“We can accomplish great things together over the next year, and I want to get that important work started off with a bang,” Schwarzenegger said in the invitation sent to lawmakers.

“I plan to lay out some bold ideas for helping our great state through this troubled time and building an even brighter future, and I don’t doubt that we will have plenty to talk about.”

An Associated Press reporter who showed up and asked to be admitted was turned away by a California Highway Patrol detail that guards the governor. The officers said the affair was private.

The governor’s spokesman, Aaron McLear, said the gathering was a social function and not subject to California’s open meetings laws. He said the Republican governor was paying for the lunch himself.

“They’re not talking business,” McLear said. “This is not an official meeting or a hearing or anything. It’s a social gathering for the governor to start the year off right with the Legislature.”

The Legislature is subject to a weaker version of California’s open-meeting laws than local or other state bodies. But it would be hard to argue that the highest legislative body in the state should not follow the same rules as a city council or a school board, said Terry Francke, legislative counsel for the nonprofit First Amendment group Californians Aware.

“I think it’s an insult to the intelligence of the public to ask them to believe that any presentation by a governor to a Legislature is purely social,” Francke said. “I’m surprised that they really have the gall to expect that to be taken seriously.”

He said a provision of the state constitution says that if a house of the Legislature or one of its committees gathers to discuss legislative business, it is an official meeting. Meetings also require notice to the public.

The lunch took place shortly after the governor addressed lawmakers for his final State of the State speech. In it, he laid out plans to deal with California’s projected $20 billion budget deficit and said he would push for long-term reforms on such issues as budgeting, the tax system and public pensions.

Tom Newton, general counsel and legislative advocate for the California Newspaper Publishers Association, said California law excludes purely social functions from open meetings laws, and he doubted that lawmakers would resolve important public policy questions during the lunch.

Still, he added: “Let’s say there were 41 Assembly members there and they had a substantive discussion about an issue within their legislative jurisdiction. Then that could be a meeting which would trigger a violation of the law.”

McLear said 70 of the Legislature’s 120 members — more than half — attended the luncheon.

All four legislative leaders — the top Democrats and Republicans of the Assembly and Senate — attended the lunch.

Assembly Speaker Karen Bass, D-Los Angeles, said the two-hour lunch, which included lemon tarts for dessert, was entirely a social event.

“It was like a Christmas party,” she said.

Assembly Minority Leader Sam Blakeslee, R-San Luis Obispo, said lawmakers understood it was fine to convene as long as they were meeting for a social event and not talking about state business.

Even if no business was discussed, a meeting to which all 120 lawmakers were invited should have received public notice, said Peter Scheer, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition, a San Rafael-based nonprofit that advocates for free speech and eliminating unnecessary government secrecy.

He said holding a private meeting in violation of state law is a misdemeanor, and everyone who attends would be in violation.

“What matters today is that they’re in there and there are no reporters there or members of the public who would wish to come,” Scheer said. “The fact that they’re not allowed in, that’s what ultimately triggers the violation of the open meetings law.”