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.