California transparency and open government movement finds its roots in Brown Act

150 150 Christopher Nelson

The Brown Act opened city council meetings to the public eye. (Photo Credit: KOMUNews)

This is our introductory piece in our weeklong coverage of Sunshine Week, a globally recognized time to advocate for transparency at all levels of government.

In the early 1950s, Ralph Brown, a California state assemblyman and lawyer from Modesto, was negotiating a deal between nurses and management at a local hospital. The hospital directors reneged behind closed doors at the last minute, tanking the entire negotiation.

Around the same time, a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle named Michael Harris authored a 10 part series called “Your Secret Government” that examined a collection of scandals on the state and local level. The introduction went like this:

Since the nation’s beginning, Americans have been concerned with secret government. “Star chamber session” was a fighting phrase in 1776, and has been ever since.

In the effort to keep public servants doing public business in full public view, success has been generally proportionate to the amount of interest shown by the public.

At the time, there was a very strong and pervasive “government knows best” sentiment. Harris’ reporting uncovered, in some cases, outright contempt on the part of elected officials for the notion that government business should be public business. Meetings about pay raises, contract bids and land use were held behind closed doors regularly, without any notification to the public.

But in 1953, riding the momentum generated by the Chronicle series and drawing motivation from his own personal experience with the hospital, Asm. Brown ushered a bill bearing his name into law. The Brown Act, as it is commonly referred to, mandates that all local government meetings be posted publicly along with their agendas and be open for the public to attend and even participate in. It required that those meetings be held on a regular schedule and follow a posted agenda.

Nineteen other states quickly followed suit, with all 50 eventually adopting open meeting laws. Ralph Brown became synonymous with the new trend toward open government. However, it wasn’t until amendments to the original 686 word document in 1961 and 1987 that non-compliance with the Brown Act became a criminal act. Historically, allowing the public to sit in on government meetings was an unwritten rule followed in some instances dating back to the 1850s, but this canonized it across the slate.

Yet, even since those amendments were passed, there has not been one conviction despite numerous examples of potential violations. A few examples:

  • 1991: LA County Supervisors redrew district maps behind closed doors;
  • 1992: LAUSD extended the Superintendent’s $148,100 salary behind closed doors in an executive session;
  • 2003: El Segundo City Council meeting during which a speaker’s microphone was shut off and he was escorted out.

Since 2001, Los Angeles County alone has sent over 50 letters of warning to municipalities seeking compliance. Yet these stayed as warnings because prior intent to break the law must be proven. Ultimately, the onus to hold elected officials accountable rests with those who elected them.

Where Legislators can continue to do their part is ensuring that the Brown Act, and its sister piece of legislation applying the same standard of openness to state agencies, the Bagley-Keene Act, are adapting with the times. The Brown Act has seen a few facelifts that apply it to officials who have not yet taken office or account for some changes in technology.

But the last time the technology issue was addressed, it was to make mention of teleconferencing. Clearly times have changed with social media and smartphones allowing a level of two-way dialogue between elected leaders and their constituents that far exceeds conference calls and fax machines. Not to mention the possibilities allowed by live streaming and digital video archiving.

So as we launch into Sunshine Week this week, we begin with this historical context of the Brown Act and the open government movement in California to inform the discussion on what transparency means to Californians today, how we are doing at upholding those ideals, and how we can do a better job tomorrow.

Reporting and background provided by Cortland Mercer and Matt Wisniewski from the Coro Fellows Program


Christopher Nelson

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