Thursday, May 12, 2011
Among the many casualties of the state budget crisis are provisions of the Brown Act, California’s comprehensive open-meetings law. Last year, the state Legislature cut $17 million for reimbursing local government costs associated with Brown Act compliance. That means for the current fiscal year (and likely the tumultuous one ahead), there is no way to enforce some of the act’s key components, like posting agendas before public meetings.
Although the budget cut means Monterey County can’t collect some $140,000 in Brown Act reimbursements this year, officials and staff say they don’t intend to stop posting agendas.
But the risk to transparency is more insidious, says Terry Francke, general counsel for Carmichael-based Californians Aware, a First Amendment rights organization. “The worst case would be an agenda that becomes less and less meaningful,” he says.
The budget cuts impact the office of District Attorney Dean Flippo, the only DA to have filed criminal charges related to a Brown Act violation. “I won’t say categorically we can’t enforce anything, but for anything connected tightly to the posting of agendas, we’d be in trouble,” says Terry Spitz, chief assistant DA.
It also means the county Legislative Committee won’t support Assemblyman Luis Alejo’s (D-Watsonville) proposed Brown Act bill.
Alejo’s AB 392 would require Internet posting of agendas and relevant staff reports in all jurisdictions with websites, and impose a minimum 72-hour window for posting materials before a public meeting.
“This is the right step to make government more transparent and more user friendly in the 21st century,” Alejo says. Forty-seven of the state’s 58 counties already comply with the conditions of the bill, he adds, based on a survey conducted by his staff.
The bill passed 6-1 out of the Local Government Committee, which Alejo vice-chairs, and proceeded to the Appropriations Committee May 11 (past the Weekly’s deadline). Alejo expects the bill to move on to the Assembly floor.
On a local level, however, AB 392 isn’t smooth sailing. On May 10, the county Board of Supervisors accepted the Legislative Committee’s recommendation to oppose the bill because it is an unfunded mandate. “Of course the Board supports transparency,” Supervisor Jane Parker says. “The concern was that the cost factor might be insurmountable.”
In a separate open-government battle, legislators last week denied news media Public Records Act requests to view their calendars, drawing criticism from advocates like Francke.
But for Alejo, openness apparently only goes so far. He says legislators were right to withhold the calendar information: “That’s a policy that applies to the entire state Legislature, and I defer to what they say.”