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State Allows Cities To Become Less Transparent

In an effort to save money, the state decided to suspend mandates that require local jurisdictions to keep the public informed.

 

Cities 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.

How many California municipalities will choose to abandon the transparency mandates is unknown.

Menlo Park Patch is attempting to contact local officials to ask if they would suspend Brown Act requirements in response to the legislature's action.

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 “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 was unknown over the weekend whether any Menlo Park Patch 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 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.

Menlo Park Patch will continue to update this article. 

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Ray Mueller July 18, 2012 at 05:12 AM
I agree with Roberta. Of all the measures that could be used to cut costs, this measure is misguided. Transparent government is essential to democracy.
harold Schapelhouman July 18, 2012 at 05:37 AM
The Menlo Park Fire Protection District Board held its monthly meeting tonight and all five of the elected Board members and Fire Chief agreed to not follow the States lead. The Fire District will continue to follow the Brown Act and its guidelines and policies on transparency and public's right to open and honest government. The Fire District is responsible for public safety for the communities of Atherton, East Palo Alto, Menlo Park and portions of unincorporated San Mateo County. If you have any questions please don't hesitate to let us know - Thank you! Harold Schapelhouman, Fire Chief
Vanessa Castañeda July 18, 2012 at 06:04 AM
Thank you for letting us know, Chief Schapelhouman. This is great news. (I'm a fan of transparency.)
Vanessa Castañeda July 19, 2012 at 04:33 PM
Update: The City Clerk's office said Menlo Park will not abandon Brown Act requirements.
Terry Benedict October 20, 2012 at 04:22 AM
I'm a "new candidate" (2012) for "director" of Orangevale Recreation and Park District. If elected i will bring this subject up as an agenda item. If needed, the Board should adopt a "resolution" stating they will continue to observe the Ralph M. Brown Act mandates! Terry Benedict

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