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State Allows Cities To Become Less Transparent

In an effort to save money, the state suspended mandates that require local jurisdictions to keep the public informed. The reason? Money.

Update 9:33 p.m.: It’s been widely reported, both at Patch and other mainstream media outlets, that a last-minute addition to the state’s 2012-13 budget allows cities and counties to skip Brown Act requirements that they post meeting agendas 72 hours in advance. In addition, the new rules allow local boards and councils to forgo publicly disclosing actions taken during closed-session meetings.

However, school boards and governing bodies for community college districts do not have that option.  

“Obligations under the Brown Act remain fully in effect for school districts and colleges,” according to School Services of California, a consultant hired by school districts throughout the state, including Capo Unified. “Open meeting and ‘sunshine’ requirements come not only from the Brown Act but also from the education code, the California constitution, board policy and other sources.”

Previously:

Towns and cities in Sonoma and across California 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.

Petaluma City Manager John Brown said he did not know whether the city was currently reimbursed for copying and posting documents related to upcoming meetings, including reports, but said the issue would ultimately be decided by city council.

"This is very new and I haven't spoken to our council, but I believe the members are very committed to citizens having adequate public notice of meetings," Brown said.

The League of California Cities is expected to release an official statement on the issue this week, but for now is suggesting that cities is “stick with the status quo.

“The League has been very involved with the Brown Act,” said Eve Spiegel, a spokeswoman for the League. “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 for three years, resulting in savings of some $96 million. 

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 Francke, a California media law expert who is general counsel of Californians Aware. 

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

Earlier this year during Sunshine Week, a national initiative launched in 2005 by the American Society of News Editors to educate the public about the importance of open government, Francke .

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.

David Devoto July 16, 2012 at 01:49 PM
So, 1984 begins in 2012??
Bookworm July 16, 2012 at 03:37 PM
This is just the continuation of 1984. We are like frogs sitting in a pot of water being brought to the boil, and we don't know when to jump out. Just think: wars without congressional approval; bank deregulation; using humans as guinea pigs for GMOs; money buying immunity; cell phone companies giving our info to the government...
Active Thinker July 16, 2012 at 05:16 PM
I would ask what is next? But when or how is this going to stop? Our Government WASTE so much time and creates problems for so many..1984...time to bring out the old text again and have my kids read it.
John Cheney July 16, 2012 at 06:41 PM
John Cheney Now goverment officals can take lots of MONEY from anyone, have a closed meeting and pass it without the public knowledge, then swearing they didn't Then they get reelected to do it over again and again. This will make our goverment officals rich and still get a large retirement they can give themselves later.
David Keller July 16, 2012 at 07:17 PM
I hope that our City Council will continue to post notices in full as previously required, so that the public has a reasonable chance of being informed when issues of importance to us all are being discussed or decided. I hope that notices by mail, email, website and by posting on project sites will continue - without that, people and places can be affected without interested neighbors, businesses and stakeholders being an effective part of the decisionmaking. Any notices related to projects are paid for by the project proponent, so that should not change at all. Public meetings will be far less successful, and the results called into question, if the public is not actively informed in advance. What say you, Council?
Kathy Schmidt July 16, 2012 at 09:51 PM
I can understand that notices by mail are costly, so I would accept that reduction in service. Posting notices and the agenda on the website should take very little time -- as would posting the minutes. Our local newspaper coverage would probably add notices and agenda to their news. And, as David Keller pointed out, project notices (by mail, etc.) are paid by the applicant so that shouldn't be affected. Transparency is VERY important and I urge our Council Members to keep our city business transparent.
John M Charlson July 17, 2012 at 03:41 AM
The above is well stated! Thanks. Keep us posted.

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