Sacramento County officials say they won’t change longstanding policies of public transparency in the wake of softened Brown Act rules.
In June, California cities and counties were given the option of becoming more secretive.
The state Legislature suspended Brown Act mandates that local jurisdictions—cities, counties, school districts, water districts and special districts—post meeting agendas for the public. The budget-driven decision also allows local boards and councils to forgo reporting to the public about actions taken during closed-session meetings.
It's unclear how many California counties, if any, will choose to abandon the transparency mandates.
But a Sacramento County spokesperson said the county will continue its practice of posting agendas ahead of meetings and announcing the results of closed sessions.
"Posting agendas online is thoroughly integrated into our system," said county Communications Director Chris Andis. "I think the public expects it, employees expect it. It’s just part of doing business and being transparent with the public and with our stakeholders."
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The state's decision to suspend 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.
Jim Ewert, general counsel for the California Newspaper Publishers Association, told the Riverside Press-Enterprise he is “significantly concerned” about the suspension.
Citizens have no legal recourse, if some officials “see it in their best interest to cut a corner here or there,” Ewert was quoted as saying last week.
The League of California Cities is expected to release an official statement on the issue soon, but the group’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.”
According to public-agency watchdog Californians Aware, local jurisdictions learned how to milk the system of state reimbursement.
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.
In fact, according to Terry Francke of Californians Aware, the city of Vista claimed $20,174 reimbursement from the state for having posted notices for 109 meetings in 2005-06.
“The city claimed the flat rate for 90 shorter agendas,” Francke said of Vista. “The city claimed 30 minutes of staff time (at a $46.17 hourly rate) to prepare each item on the other agendas. For example, the city council’s Dec. 13, 2005, hearing included 35 agenda items; the city claimed $808.”
The San Francisco Chronicle summarized the history of the Brown Act:
The Brown Act, named for the Modesto assemblyman who authored it, requires that at least 72 hours before a public meeting, local legislative bodies must post an agenda "containing a brief general description of each item of business to be transacted or discussed ... in a location that is freely accessible to members of the public and on the local agency's Internet Web site." The act also stipulates that all decisions made in closed session must be announced publicly.
State Sen. Leland Yee, D-San Francisco, has introduced Senate Constitutional Amendment (SCA 7) that would ask California voters if they want the transparency. The amendment is stalled in committee.
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, Francke said.
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Additional reporting by Felicia Mello.