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State Allows Cities to Become Less Transparent

In an effort to save money, the state decided to suspend mandates that require local jurisdictions to keep the public informed.

Cities now have the option of becoming a lot more secretive—if they choose.

Last month, the state legislature suspended the Brown Act mandate that local jurisdictions—cities, counties, school districts, water districts and special districts—post meeting agendas for the public. The suspension also allows local jurisdictions to forgo reporting to the public about actions taken during closed-session meetings.

How many California municipalities will choose to abandon the transparency mandates is unknown.

In Roseville, officials plan to keep the status quo. Wednesday night’s council meeting agenda, for example, is .

"Transparency is one of our highest priorities as a municipal government, and we’ve often been a leader statewide in voluntarily implementing services that promote transparency, such as live broadcasts and online archives of our council, board, and commission meetings dating back many years," City of Roseville spokesperson Megan MacPherson said in a statement. "We take our responsibility seriously as stewards of public funds, and we want our citizens and businesses to be aware of and participate in their local government. We will continue our current approach to build and maintain that trust."

The League of California Cities is expected to release an official statement on the issue next week, but the organization’s Communications Director Eva Spiegel said for now the suggestion to cities is “stick with the status quo.

“The League has been very involved with the Brown Act,” she said. “We have always encouraged transparency.”

How the state came to the decision of suspending the Brown Act mandates boiled down to one thing: money. In California, mandates placed on local jurisdictions by Sacramento must be funded by the state. In the case of the Brown Act mandates, the state was subsidizing nearly $100 million a year by some estimates.

So in an effort to cut expenditures, the state decided to suspend the mandates. 

But according to watchdog Californians Aware—a group that tries to foster improvement of, compliance with and public understanding and use of, public forum law, which deals with what rights citizens have to know what is going in in government—local jurisdictions learned how to milk the system.

They “could get a windfall of cash for doing something they had always done: preparing and posting meeting agendas for their governing and other bodies as mandated by Brown Act amendments passed in 1986—but as, in fact, routinely done anyway since time immemorial to satisfy practical and political expectations,” the nonprofit reported Friday.

State Senator Leland Yee (D-San Francisco) has introduced a Senate Constitutional Amendment (SCA 7) that would ask California voters if they want the transparency. The amendment is stalled in committee.

"To anyone who's been watching this issue for a while, the real news is not that the Brown Act can be so dependent on the state budget," said Terry Franke, a California media law expert who is General Counsel, Californians Aware.

"The real news is that 17 people in Sacramento are denying the public the chance to say 'Enough'."

In the meantime, the suspension could last through 2015, so it appears the public will need to demand transparency from its representatives if it wants to stay informed.

—Additional reporting by Roseville Patch editor Lauren Gibbs

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Franklin July 17, 2012 at 07:48 PM
I'm curious about this: How did the cities milk $100 million by posting agendas? Did they actually seek reimbursement from the state? As I understand it, the Brown Act is law. What authority did the legislature use to suspend the act? Can they simply suspend an act by decree? If they passed a bill suspending the act, didn't the governor have to sign it? I'm just curious about this.
Felicia Mello July 27, 2012 at 09:28 PM
A clarification to this story: The new, relaxed rules apparently do not apply to school boards and community college boards, as was originally reported in some media outlets including Patch. That's because other state laws also govern transparency on those boards. More details here: http://patch.com/A-w26P
Lauren Gibbs July 27, 2012 at 10:33 PM
Franklin, sorry for the delay; I just saw your questions. The costs include preparing and posting meeting agendas and yes, some cities did seek reimbursement from the state. According to the state's Legislative Analyst's Office, cities can ask for a flat rate of $155 per agenda or can bill the state for their own hourly rate to prepare each item on an agenda. From what I understand, the state is suspending mandated portions of the Brown Act that require cities and other agencies to publish materials such as meeting agendas, minutes and reports from closed sessions, so it’s not a suspension of the entire Brown Act. As for your other questions, I’ll look into them and get back to you.

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