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Brown Act: New Clause Allows Cities to Be Less Transparent

State legislature suspends mandates of the Brown Act which required transparency from local governments.

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, as the news has yet to trickle down them in some cases.

Glendora Mayor Pro Tem Joe Santoro said it would still be business as usual in Glendora despite the change, saying the city will continue to post meeting agendas and stream live videos online for the public.

Santoro said he believed the new clause is the state's attempt to "pass the buck" of transparency to local governments. 

"Now the state can say, ‘Well, we don’t require you to do that, so we don’t have to pay for it,'" said Santoro. "Of course, that puts all cities in a box because we want to be transparent, but we’re in a difficult budgetary times. It’s going to be an additional drain on the budget, just like the elimination of redevelopment, the taking of our license fees and realignment."

Santoro said cities should remember their responsibilities to their citizens.

"If cities say, ‘We know we don’t have to do it because it’s not required,’ then they’re really doing a disservice to their communities," said Santoro. "I think informing the public encourages the community to become involved in the decisions that affect them and that's what we want."

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.

"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'."

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.

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.

Elias Funkerbrusque July 17, 2012 at 04:40 PM
So, we need the state to keep local public officials transparent? And they need to be paid to do this? Hasn't it been our job all along, talking about you and me, us citizens, to hold big and little government accountable? There's no real news here. It's always fallen upon us the electorate to keep our elected officials transparent. Maybe we should wake the heck up and pay attention to what is going on with city hall instead of drinking from the kool-aid of the state's mandates.
Bill Robinett July 17, 2012 at 05:54 PM
I partially agree with Funkerbrusque. Clearly, we as the community must always insist on transparency on actions of our City Hall. I respectcully disagree to the comment, " There's no real news here." We've seen during the past 4-5 years, the trend of secret meetings in our US Congress, (even though they are not operating under the auspices of the Brown Act as we allude to here). Still, to suggest we don't need the Brown Act, could lead to shutting off the public's view of actions from all various Boards, Councils, City Gov't, etc....leading to very dangerous enviornment. Clearly, the citizens need to always have access to decisions and actions as taken by city & state leaders. I can't imagine going forward withoiut the benefit of having the Brown Act or it's equilivant, assuring the transparency we citizens look to as we observe our leaders. I see this as an attempt to potentially set up an "end run" and avoid sharing decisions with the electorite---clearly, a most dangerous suggestion! Bill Robinett
Libi Uremovic July 18, 2012 at 04:49 AM
i started looking at the city of imperial beach's books and i'm shocked at what i've found: HIDDEN PAYROLL ACCOUNT - To side-step the wage limits our city counsel, city manager, city clerk, hr director, finance director, planning director, and asst city manger all moved part of their wages to the hidden payroll account. FORGING THE CHECK WARRANTS: From 07/01/11 – 05/02/12 there has been $3,262,420.41 ratified, but the checks only total $354,294.23. That leaves $2,908,126.18 unaccounted for. FALSIFYING FINANCIAL STATEMENTS: City Attorneys material misstatement of $267, 925 on Financial Statements FYE 06/30/11 City Attorney Fees Budgeted at $205,000, but over $600,000 City Attorney paid in fees so far this year. You can read more about it on my web site: http://libionline.net/index.html
Libi Uremovic July 18, 2012 at 04:57 AM
everyone needs to call their state legislature to get this killed....our problem is that our governments are corrupt... the politicians are suppose to be working for us, not working against us..
Libi Uremovic July 18, 2012 at 05:00 AM
we pay our politicians to 'manage' the government employees...but they are conspiring together and against we the people.... this has to come to an end...it's a bunch of crap that our elected and appointed officials are allowed to continue...it's time to put our foot down and stop the circus...
Sheryl July 18, 2012 at 05:12 AM
I am all for transparency. But I don't want to have the state have to pay to have it happen. Therefore, I like the idea of suspending the Brown Act since it is tied to paying for the entities to be transparent. Rather than keeping the Brown Act and its accompanying budget, lets urge legislators to enact something similar without the budget attached to it. Of course, all entities need their constituents to expect transparency to ensure it happens. We need to be involved!
Libi Uremovic July 18, 2012 at 05:17 PM
i don't know what you're talking about....it doesn't 'cost' anything for an open government....the 'cost' is the back door deals and corrupt government officials...

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