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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 Suisun City 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.

It's unclear how many California municipalities will choose to abandon the transparency mandates. Suisun City Pete Sanchez said he'd heard of the proposed suspensions some time ago, but never thought that they would actually pass. Still, he thinks it is a good idea to continue posting city council agendas.

"If I can persuade council members (to continue posting meeting agendas) then that's the way we will go," Sanchez said. "It's a big disservice to the public to hide the agendas."

The League of California Cities is expected to release an official statement on the issue this 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.

It is unknown if local jurisdictions had filed for reimbursements.

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, 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.

Suisun City Patch will continue to provide updates on this topic. 

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