July 24, 2012 — The preamble of California’s Open Meeting law, commonly referred to as the Brown Act, reads “Public commissions, boards, councils and other legislative bodies of local government agencies exist to aid in the conduct of the people’s business.
The people do not yield their sovereignty to the bodies that serve them. The people insist on remaining informed to retain control over the legislative bodies they have created.”
In a shocking, irresponsible and incomprehensible move — the legislature and the governor struck a severe blow against the people’s sovereignty last month when they refused to provide funding for key provisions of the Brown Act, originally enacted in 1953.
According to the First Amendment Coalition, a government watchdog group, “Buried deep in the budget signed June 27 by the governor is a small provision that suspends the reimbursable state mandate that requires local governmental bodies under the Brown Act to post a descriptive meeting agenda 72 hours before a regular meeting and stick to it.”
This debacle actually began back in 2004 when 83.7 percent of California voters approved Prop 1A — a constitutional amendment designed to protect funding for local governments that requires the state to pay the cost of all its mandates or suspend their operation.
Now here’s the rub. Reimbursement claims filed with the state to recoup the alleged costs incurred by complying with the Brown Act mandates ranged from $30 million to $100 million per year, according to published estimates. The California Newspaper Publishers Association estimates the claims totaled about $50 million last year.
For example, Californians Aware, another watchdog group, reported Santa Barbara County charged the state a whopping $78,044 for 384 meetings in 2005-2006. The city of Vista charged the state $20,174 for creating 90 shorter agendas. It was also noted that Vista billed the state an additional $808 for the preparation of its Dec. 13, 2005 city council meeting notice.
So, rather than address the real issue of reimbursement claims gone wild, the legislature and the governor simply cut off the funding, leaving those portions of the Brown Act unenforceable in a court of law. That means the people have no legal recourse against a legislative body that refuses to comply with these Brown Act provisions.
It’s unacceptable that the legislature would create a situation that could allow irresponsible legislative bodies to shirk their responsibility to the people and bilk taxpayers for duties as traditional and common as preparing agendas for their public meetings.
Shame on the legislature for creating this mess, shame on the legislative bodies that took advantage of the system and shame on the governor for signing this absurdity into law.
By just this one blatant example, it appears it’s okay to have no accountability on handling our money; we’ll just vote to give them more to mismanage come November. Really?
We trust our local legislative bodies will honor their duty to the people by creating and posting agendas and providing public notice of their actions despite the relaxing of the Brown Act requirements.
We also urge the legislature to quickly approve SCA 7 — a proposed constitutional amendment by Senator Leland Yee currently stalled in the Assembly Appropriations Committee — a bill that would place this simple solution before the voters: “Each public body shall provide public notice of its meetings and shall publicly disclose any action taken.”
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