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.
The state of California has decided to save money by passing the buck (literally) associated with the Brown Act along to the cities.
Last month, the state legislature suspended the Brown Act mandate that local jurisdictions — cities, counties, school districts, water districts and special districts — post agendas for the public prior to meetings. 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 a budget bill signed by Governor Jerry Brown. Members say it will save the State $96 million per year, because the State will no longer be required to reimburse cities and other jurisdictions for posting agendas and reporting on closed session meetings, which it must do if those actions are mandated.
Regardless, Burlingame has no plans to change its reporting process.
"We wil not be changing policy on posting the agendas," said City Clerk Mary Ellen Kearney.
She said agendas will continue to post before meetings, keeping government transparent for Burlingame residents.
How many California municipalities will choose to abandon the transparency mandates is unknown, although the state is betting that like Burlingame, 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.
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.