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Update: 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. City staff said they'll continue to post agendas, even if not required.

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. 

"In the interest of transparency the district would have continued providing 72-hour notice of meetings anyway," said Redwood City School District spokesperson Naomi Hunter.

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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. Locally, Redwood City won't change anything.

“I conferred with the city attorney and we will continue to honor the law,” said City Clerk Silvia Vonderlinden. “The public has a right to know.”

The city abides the law by posting the public agendas 72 hours before any public meeting.

Mayor Alicia Aguirre said the council wouldn’t deviate from their current practices.

“Transparency is one of the things that Redwood City is well known for,” she said. “It’s so valuable for our community to work together, from business to education to stay connected.”

The Redwood City School District will also to continue posting its agendas 72 hours before any meeting.

"The Redwood City School District is committed to transparency and encourages the public to follow and attend school board meetings," said spokeswoman Naomi Hunter in an email.

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.

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.

—Additional reporting by Patch editor Stacie Chan

 

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