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State Allows Cities To Become Less Transparent

In an effort to save money, the state suspended mandates that require local jurisdictions to keep the public informed. The reason? Money.

Towns and cities in Marin and across California 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.

It's unclear how many California municipalities will choose to abandon the transparency mandates is unknown. The League of California Cities is expected to release an official statement on the issue this 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 is unknown if local 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 Francke, 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.'"

Earlier this year during Sunshine Week, a national initiative launched in 2005 by the American Society of News Editors to educate the public about the importance of open government, Francke .

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.

M. Calwald July 16, 2012 at 01:43 PM
Just when you think Gov. Brown/Moonbeam can't get any worse. Are people finally getting the connection between the erosion of local control and NOW no transparency? If people are not outraged they are not paying attention! We need to vote all of these people out of office, starting with the local officials.
Mark Schoenbaum July 16, 2012 at 01:51 PM
Sorry - we have to spend the money on public employee pensions. Taxpayers are the least of our worries.
Cindy July 16, 2012 at 02:19 PM
Mark you hit the "nail on the head" with your comment, couldn't have been more accurate!!!
Bob July 16, 2012 at 02:40 PM
I wonder where the low income housing issue would be if the public didn't know about it. The preliminary housing sites placed high density housing, 30 plus units per acre, in single family residence neighborhoods. One area had something like 300 units in a two block area.
Tina McMillan July 16, 2012 at 04:56 PM
Novato has a system called E Notification. If you have a computer you can have automatic updates on a variety of subjects including public meetings, sent to your email to remain informed. We may not be able to change Sacramento midstream, but we can let our local officials know how important it is to remain connected to the community. If we want to maintain the Brown Act in Novato and Marin we need to let local officials know. Here is a link to E Notification: http://www.ci.novato.ca.us/Index.aspx?page=640 Here is the email for the council: novatocouncil@cityofnovato.org Here is the email for Steve Kinsey (West Novato): skinsey@marincounty.org Here is the email for Judy Arnold: jarnold@marincounty.org
Leslie Benjamin July 16, 2012 at 05:33 PM
As spokesperson for the Novato Unified School District, we will be maintaining the Brown Act.
Tina McMillan July 16, 2012 at 06:00 PM
Thank you!
Dexter Kaziff July 16, 2012 at 07:29 PM
Blame the public employees and not Wall Street or the bursting of the housing bubble. Typical propaganda.
Tina McMillan July 16, 2012 at 07:47 PM
Dexter Couldn't it be all of the above? By spending more than we can afford we are putting entire cities into bankruptcy. There are four now in California: Vallejo, Stockton, San Bernadino and Mammoth Lakes. http://www.slate.com/blogs/breakingviews/2012/07/11/bankruptcy_loses_its_taboo_for_california_s_cities_.html
Dexter Kaziff July 16, 2012 at 08:10 PM
True Tina...it isn't just one thing, but some people comment on the pensions like they are solely responsible for the state budget mess.
City of Novato July 17, 2012 at 03:09 PM
The City of Novato will continue to follow the provisions of the Brown Act.
Bob Ratto July 17, 2012 at 03:12 PM
Thanks for making the correct decision, transparency is important.
Tina McMillan July 17, 2012 at 03:27 PM
Thank you!
Trish Boorstein July 18, 2012 at 03:38 PM
Thank you City of Novato. Would love to see closed sessions recorded for transparency too-
Mike Di Giorgio July 18, 2012 at 10:20 PM
The Novato Sanitary District will continue to follow the provisions of the Brown Act. Michael Di Giorgio - President, Novato Sanitary Board of Directors

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