by Emily Low
photography by Veronica Garcia
In the President’s Dining Room at the University of La Verne, a crowd of thirty-plus has gathered to hear Rich McKee speak. Professional reporters, university professors and students of all disciplines mingle amidst the group. When McKee takes the podium, a concentrated silence falls over the proceedings. Most in the group have never met him, but when this rock of a man addresses the room, his presence alone commands their attention.
For the next hour plus, McKee examines the Brown Act, which requires meetings of civic agencies to remain open to the public. By the time he is finished, the uninitiated not only have a better understanding of the measure, how it affects each of them, and how important California Code Section 54950-54963 really is, but they also are inspired to become new recruits to the open meeting cause.
The consummate professor, McKee has spoken to the crowd like he addresses his students, and the lecture has been a learning experience for all. Behind his podium, McKee is affable, pleasant-voiced, and engaging, skills he has honed during his years teaching chemistry at Pasadena City College. The parallel makes sense, because for the non-civic-minded, unraveling government policy is just as difficult as explaining nuclear fission. McKee knows this, and the satisfaction he gets from dissecting complex subjects and presenting them in more digestible forms drives him through each of his endeavors.
“There’s something about being able to take something that people find to be so difficult, and make it so easy,” McKee says. “I can tell you honestly that has made my life a joy. That is what teaching does for me.”
He stresses the public’s responsibility to remain informed about who is serving their communities, and how we can effectively track their activities.
“If they are really here to try to do what they are elected to do, then they want to know how all of us feel and then cast their vote,” McKee argues. “The problem begins with whom we elect.
“What we should be doing is like we did in the old days,” McKee continues. “We picked somebody that has real character. We know they’re honest; we know they’re thoughtful; we know they’re able to handle a lot of information and make good decisions. We just trust in their ability to listen to everybody and vote the right way. If we get back to doing that, I think a lot of our problems with open government would disappear. I try to promote that kind of government.”
McKee’s staunch enforcement of the Brown Act has placed him in court with several high profile opponents. Among these: L.A. Impact, a drug enforcement sector of the Los Angeles Police Department, the San Antonio Water Company, and, most recently, the Bonita Unified School District.
For McKee, there is no entity powerful enough to supersede the public’s right to information, and as a majority, the courts have agreed with him. McKee claims that he’s never really lost a case, even when the courts haven’t ruled in his favor.
“I didn’t really lose, because we got all of the changes we demanded,” McKee explains. “I just didn’t get a win in the court because they already changed.”
But this is not to say that McKee is eager to throw a lawsuit at anybody. His process is far more controlled. First, he identifies the Brown Act violation committed by the organization he opposes. Then, he approaches the offending parties and addresses the issue with them, allowing them the opportunity to fix their infraction. Only when he does not get a lawful response from an organization does he proceed to the courtroom. In fact, most of McKee’s opponents never even meet him in a judicial setting.
“About three quarters of the time, I am successful in getting them to change,” McKee says, “to simply rescind what they did and inform the public and do it correctly.”
McKee’s thorough understanding of the Brown Act and its enforcement allows him to cite these discrepancies chapter/verse, and the Code itself provides him with his means for correction.
“The Brown Act allows for that,” McKee continues. “And then that one quarter of the time you run up against a brick wall and the only thing left is a choice, and that choice is either get up and walk away and shrug your shoulders, or sue them. There is no in between. So I’ve, from that very first time, committed that I’d never pick up and walk away.”
And when he does take that step, McKee knows his process well.
“The first call to make is to the press,” McKee advises. By this, he aims to draw attention to his cause and capture the interest of reporters. McKee doesn’t do this to defame each organization. He prefers to “embarrass” them, he says. According to McKee, negative coverage increases the likelihood of a settlement, since most organizations would prefer to alter their policies than to allow their name to be throttled.
He also says that the key to successful litigation is remaining emotionally unattached from the proceedings. McKee does not consider personal motivations in his quests, just textbook violations, so he is able to remain neutral. However, this was probably difficult to explain to his employers at Pasadena City College—when he sued them. Previously, the school’s sizable pool of instructors had to apply to a Leave Committee for sabbatical consideration. When the Committee reviewed the applications, their meetings remained closed to the public, and they involved faculty members. After some questionable sabbatical grants on the part of the Committee, McKee met his bosses in court, and the Leave Committee meetings have since been opened.
McKee cites his most significant victory as his case against L.A. Impact. LAI was a task force created to manage drug-related seizures in Los Angeles County. Since the group’s inception in 1991, LAI seized more than $75 million in assets. However, for the first 13 years of its existence, public access to the group was limited. McKee took the group to court in October 2004 after realizing that public blindness to the group’s expenditures led to the possibility of misappropriated funds.
“There will be more members of the public now who will be able to oversee these kind of stealth agencies,” McKee speculates. “And I think we’re bound to see, just from seeing how they’re operated, some misuse of funds by those agencies. The police chiefs were off golfing in Palm Springs; they were using some of these funds for partying, and that’s going to eliminate that.”
To most, McKee’s second job would be considered unique. But he says he’s never strived to be different; he’s just sought a way that he could do something to give back.
“There were people who taught my kids to play soccer,” McKee recalls. “There were people who served on PTA for decades. And I thought to myself, ‘Maybe this is the way I can give something to my community.’ So, it’s not something that other people don’t do; it’s just a different venue.”
But, “open-government advocates” are not created overnight. McKee admits that he struggled in his early days to perfect his process, a transformation he continues to undergo.
McKee admits that he “worried like crazy” during his early days. He fretted whether he was missing documents that he would need in the courtroom. He recalls his first experience, at a courthouse in Los Angeles, where he walked into the large administrative building and was overwhelmed. Unsure of where to file his papers, he asked a clerk where he was supposed to do so. She took his papers and told McKee, “Just remember from now on anything else you bring in you have to take up to the courtroom and file it there.”
“Boy, I really appreciate you letting me know because I just don’t have a clue,” McKee admits. The clerk leaned over to him and quipped, “Listen, most of the lawyers that come in here don’t have a clue.”
Like his knowledge growth, McKee’s work is ongoing. He acknowledges the impact that he’s made to date, but notes that there will always be a need for public policing of elected agencies.
“My goal is to let everybody in the general population know that you can stand up for your rights without fear,” McKee says optimistically. “I think if we could get to a place where city councils and school boards realize that nobody is going to sit on their hands, we might be able to change the overall landscape. And I hope maybe in another 10 years we can get there.”
Still, McKee recognizes how important his smaller contributions have been in initiating positive changes in existing policies.
“I guess in the beginning I was amazed that I won,” he chuckles. “And now it’s just this really good feeling inside that you know that the people in that area have been given a little more freedom than they had before. And that makes it worthwhile.
“I don’t want to kid people,” asserts McKee. “It’s one hell of a lot of work to write these papers and research the law. But when you win, it’s something; it’s difficult to describe to other people, it’s just….”
McKee doesn’t seem to know how to finish his sentence. But the warm smile on his face does it for him.