Photo credit: ARIANA DREHSLER/AFP via Getty Images
By Arturo Castañares
A local committee of fire and police chiefs held its first public meeting today after 16 years of acting behind closed doors to allocate millions of dollars per year in federal funds to prepare for and respond to terrorist attacks – but their change came only after La Prensa San Diego filed a lawsuit in December to challenge their secret meetings as being in violation of state open meeting laws.
The Urban Area Working Group, known as UAWG, a subcommittee of the San Diego County Unified Disaster Council, is comprised of police and fire chiefs from throughout the County. UAWG is the “Approval Authority” that allocates an average of about $15 million per year in federal funds to nearly every public safety agency in the region and has allocated more than $200 million since the program’s inception.
UAWG had held all of its previous meetings since 2003 behind closed doors without any public input or disclosure of its actions which is contrary to the California Brown Act and the California Public Records Act, which require open meetings and public access to information related to government agencies, respectively.
La Prensa San Diego first became aware of the UAWG and its funding powers in April 2020 when the El Cajon City Council entered into an agreement with the City of San Diego to receive federal funds to purchase an armored police vehicle called a Lenco Bearcat. The information led to the Office of Homeland Security within the San Diego Police Department that runs the UAWG program which has approved funding of tactical and surveillance equipment, including armored personnel carriers, riot gear, facial recognition technology, and vehicle license plate readers, just to name a few.
After several unanswered requests for information about UAWG meetings, La Prensa San Diego filed a lawsuit as allowed under state law to challenge a public agency’s continuing violations of the Brown Act. The lawsuit was filed against the Unified San Diego County Emergency Services Organization (USDCESO) as the parent organization of the UDC and the UAWG.
UAWG postponed its December 16th meeting after being served with the lawsuit, and earlier this month amended its charter to specifically require itself to comply with the Brown Act and the California Public Records Act.
The County’s response to the lawsuit last month admitted that the group is a “legislative body” as defined in the Brown Act which means the committee is governed by the state’s open meeting laws, but the group continues to fight the lawsuit by claiming the fact they cancelled their December meeting makes the lawsuit moot.
The remaining issue to be resolved by the Court is whether UAWG must disclose all of its past documents and actions from before the date of the lawsuit. As a legislative body, all of its documents and actions since its inception should be subject to disclosure under state law. Full disclosure of all previous years’ documents would provide information on the items already purchased through the funding process, including tactical and surveillance equipment not previously revealed to the public.
During today’s public meeting, held online via Zoom, the UAWG committee voted unanimously to approve its 2021 funding allocations for a total of $12.3 million in grant funding. The program received a total of $16.9 million in federal funding, but the City’s Office of Homeland Security keeps some of the funding for staff expenses, and also forwards a percentage of the total to the State’s Office of Emergency Services for support of the program.
The pending lawsuit will continue forward with subpoenas for documents, depositions of key individuals, and hearings before the judge.