23 Aug 2014
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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.

State Allows Cities To Become Less Transparent

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.

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