California suspends part of open meetings law, cities vow to comply anyway

Quietly last week, the California state legislature suspended parts of the Brown Act, the state’s open meetings and transparency law. The Brown Act governs activities of state and municipal meetings, including when to post agendas, and minutes of meetings involving the public’s business. When they agreed to the suspension, they noted that it was more of a cost-cutting measure as it is costly to post all this public information about the public’s business.

The action has since spawned a law suit and public statements from municipalities vowing to uphold all of the provisions of the Brown Act despite the cost. At the state level, lawmakers are searching for any way to find money as the state budget continues to hemorrhage money. They found $100 million by suspending a portion of the Brown Act that requires government agencies to post agendas 72 hours in advance and announce closed-session meetings. The savings is achieved because the rule requires that the state will pay when municipalities and agencies post this information through a reimbursement schedule. Now, cities, counties and agencies will be on the hook for the bill.

Since then, one legislator, Leland Yee, has been working on an amendment to the state constitution that would make the provisions of the Brown Act constitutionally mandated. An open government watchdog group, San Diegans for Open Government has also filed a lawsuit to have the suspension which was passed as a provision of the recently signed state budget,overturned. The full complaint is available here.

Municipalities across the state have also been issuing public statements that they will continue to uphold the full provisions of the Brown Act despite the increased cost, noting that without information about when meetings are taking place it will be virtually impossible for the public to participate in local meetings.

The vows are notable as CivSource reported some cities in the state have already declared or are likely to declare municipal bankruptcy. Writing in an email to the Foster City Patch Councilmember Pam Frisella explained the view of many municipalities, “We still think it is important for us to continue and I, for one, continue to be amazed at how the State is continuing to dig into local government monies that we have been so diligent to save to balance OUR budget – and how we have little choice but to comply with their demands.”

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