The state of California has decided to save money by passing the buck (literally) associated with the Brown Act along to the cities.
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.
The State Legislature took the action as part of one of their Budget Bills signed by Governor Jerry Brown.
They say it will save the State $96 Million per year by refusing to abide by the requirements of SB 90 – earlier legislation that required the State to reimburse Cities, Counties and Special Districts for their costs when new State-required programs are added.
San Carlos has had no discussions among its City Staff or the City Council to change any of that.
"When I first got into politics, in 1999, the city would post the agenda on the window," San Carlos Mayor Matt Grocutt said. "I wrote it all down and and e-mailed it to everybody. I would think we are still going to do that."
In fact, at the last planning commission meeting, city attorney Greg Rubens presented a refresher course on it, as he normally does every year with city council.
The Governor and Legislature are not subject to the Brown Act, which makes some of their comments about the importance of this law ring hollow.
San Carlos follows the Brown Act, even as some of the those who discuss it do not.
"Generally people want to know what government is doing," San Carlos Director of Community Development Al Savay said. "It's a kind of service to deliver to the the people. It makes good sense to continue that for both politicans and the community."
How many California municipalities will choose to abandon the transparency mandates is unknown, although the state is betting not many will.
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 to stick with the status quo.
"The League has been very involved with the Brown Act," she said. "We have always encouraged transparency."
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.
The state reportedly owes hundreds of cities reimbursements for previous years.
The Riverside Press-Enterprise reported that the state owes Riverside County some $2.6 million for expenses incurred in the past decade, according to the county auditor’s office.
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.
-- Los Altos Patch Editor L.A. Chung contributed to this report.
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