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State Allows Cities To Become Less Transparent

In an effort to save money, the state decided to suspend mandates that require local jurisdictions to keep the public informed.

Local government agencies 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.

Officials at the say they're monitoring the situation.

"We plan to continue posting agendas at least 72 hours in advance of a meeting or 24 hours in advance of a special/emergency meeting," district spokesman Trent Allen said in an emailed statement. "We’re assessing what, if any, other changes the law would allow that have the potential to save costs while maintaining or enhancing our current level of transparency."

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.

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 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'."

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.

—Additional reporting by Carmichael Patch editor Victor Calderon

Felicia Mello July 27, 2012 at 09:27 PM
A clarification to this story: The new, relaxed rules apparently do not apply to school boards and community college boards, as was originally reported in some media outlets including Patch. That's because other state laws also govern transparency on those boards. More details here: http://patch.com/A-w26P

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