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City officials say they won’t change longstanding policies of public transparency despite the state's altered approach to the Brown Act, which aims to make government more open.
In June, California cities and counties were given the option of not posting meeting agendas and other reports to save money.
The state Legislature offered to suspend Brown Act mandates that local jurisdictions, such as cities and counties, post meeting agendas for the public, as the state will no longer reimburse the agencies for the costs.
The suspension also allows local boards and councils to forgo reporting to the public about actions taken during closed-session meetings, which generally focus on legal and personnel issues.
Coronado Mayor Casey Tanaka said the city plans to continue its practice of posting agendas ahead of meetings and announcing closed-session results.
“The new rules are another example of how short-sighted Sacramento politicians are and how willing they are to cut corners to save a dime while ignoring the damage of not supporting their own Brown Act legislation,” he said via email.
A copy of council and commission agendas is made available three days before the scheduled meetings. The agendas also are posted on the city’s website; school board agendas are posted on the Coronado Unified School District's website.
School districts, according to Dannis Woliver Kelley, a law firm with offices in San Diego that specializes in education law, are not exempt from Brown Act provisions, despite the legislature's vote last month.
According to a memo prepared by the firm, “obligations under the Brown Act remain fully in effect for school districts and colleges. School districts and colleges may also continue to file reimbursement claims for mandated costs of compliance.”
Former San Diego Councilwoman Donna Frye, an open-government advocate, recently told the San Diego Reader that efforts to water down the Brown Act would be “bad news for the public.”
Jim Ewert, general counsel for the California Newspaper Publishers Association, told the Riverside Press-Enterprise he is “significantly concerned” about the Brown Act maneuvers.
The League of California Cities is expected to release an official statement on the issue, but for now the group’s communications director Eva Spiegel said “we have always encouraged transparency.”
The state decided to suspend the Brown Act mandates for one reason: Saving money in the face of its on-going budget crisis.
In California, mandates placed on local jurisdictions by Sacramento must be funded by the state. In the case of the Brown Act, the state was by some estimates subsidizing nearly $100 million a year of posting costs.
Coronado Councilman Mike Woiwode, however, said the city rarely saw the money, yet officials continued to post agendas and other notices.
“It is not too costly to comply with the Brown Act,” he said. “In fact, we don’t count on those reimbursements, because they often don’t materialize anyway.”
But public-agency watchdog Californians Aware alleges that some local jurisdictions learned how to milk the system.
For instance, according to Terry Francke, the city of Vista claimed $20,174 from the state for having posted notices for 109 meetings in 2005-06. “For example,” he noted, “the City Council’s Dec. 13, 2005 hearing included 35 agenda items; the city claimed $808.”
The San Francisco Chronicle summarized 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) to ask California voters if they want the transparency. It is stalled in committee. In the meantime, the Brown Act suspension could last through 2015.
Maggie Avants, Toni McAllister and Ken Stone of Patch.com contributed to this report.