The Brown Act enters budgetary limbo, transparency at stake

150 150 Alexandra Bjerg

You have undoubtedly been overwhelmed with news about the $15.7 billion worth of cuts being made to education, CalWORKS, and other programs ever since Governor Brown signed the budget last month.  What you probably haven’t heard much about is that the budget also chips away at a fundamental pillar of open government in California–the California Open Meeting Law. 

About $828 million is being saved by suspending a number of state mandates, which are tasks the state of California imposes on local governments and then later reimburses them for after they comply. A key provision that fell under this category as a mandate guaranteeing public access to local government meetings was just nixed from the budget.  

Under the new budget, significant components of the California Open Meeting Law, better known as the Brown Act, have been suspended. The requirement that governing bodies of California cities, counties, school districts, water districts, and other local agencies prepare and post agendas in advance of meetings as well as disclose closed session decisions is now optional. The state will no longer reimburse local agencies for administrative costs incurred from fulfilling these requirements. 

The state, which already owes local governments $115 million in deferred payments under the mandate, will only save an estimated $96 million, over three years, from the suspension.  Carving out such a thin slice of the budget pie at the expense of transparency may make fiscal sense but we at California Forward don’t see the tradeoff as nearly worthwhile considering what is sacrificed in goodwill between governments and their constituents. 

At a time when public confidence in local government is at historic lows, we should be strengthening requirements that safeguard public accountability rather than removing them. The fiscal benefits resulting from these modest cuts do not outweigh the benefits of public involvement in a more open, transparent, and accountable government. 

The good news is that despite the cuts, several local government representatives have already announced their willingness to cover the costs of continuing to follow the rules. But with several corruption scandals, most notoriously in the City of Bell, still fresh in the minds of many Californians, it’s hard not to be concerned that a few bad apples may take advantage of the suspension. 

The state’s action to lift the requirement leaves citizens with no legal recourse should their representatives decide it is in their best interest not to post agendas 72 hours in advance of meetings or disclose any actions taken during closed door meetings.  

Although officials including Riverside’s Mayor Ron Loveridge and County Supervisor Bob Buster have publically renewed their commitment to transparency and public involvement by agreeing to comply with all provisions of the Brown Act, we really shouldn’t be giving them the option. 

State Senator Leland Yee, D-San Francisco, has been working on a measure to do just that — make the entire Brown Act mandatory. 

The Governor’s tax measure, if passed in November, would also reinstate the full mandate but without state reimbursement. If it fails, the suspension could remain in place for at least the next three years. 

If neither one of those measures pass, citizens could pressure their cities and counties to pass a ‘Sunshine Ordinance”, as the residents of the City of Santa Ana have recently done. (Check out my last blog to find out more)

California Forward believes that a good government, among other things, is open and accountable to its people. Not posting agendas in advance of meetings hinders the publics’ involvement in local government business. Not disclosing closed session decisions prohibits representatives from being held to account for those actions.  Transparency and accountability, particularly during the dire financial crisis in which many local agencies currently find themselves, should not be sacrificed in order to lower the deficit.


Alexandra Bjerg

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