Keep government open; don't undermine the Brown Act | August 1, 2012 | Almanac | Almanac Online |


Viewpoint - August 1, 2012

Keep government open; don't undermine the Brown Act

California journalists and advocates of open government are rightfully concerned over the Legislature's suspension of an important provision of the Brown Act, the state's open meeting law. In a move they claim will save some $96 million over the next three years, state lawmakers last month eliminated reimbursement to public agencies for posting meeting agendas in advance of the sessions — a Brown Act requirement. This move effectively removes the legal duty cities and special districts have had for decades to inform citizens of when their city councils, commissions, and boards will meet, and what they will be discussing.

Locally, the public has reason to cheer: City officials of Menlo Park, Atherton, Woodside and Portola Valley have said they intend to continue posting agendas despite the provision's suspension. Although we have yet to survey officials of special districts such as West Bay Sanitary and Sequoia Healthcare, we hope they will acknowledge the importance of keeping the public informed about board meetings, and continue posting.

But regardless of those commitments by a growing number of agencies across the state to continue abiding by the posting provisions despite being let off the hook by Sacramento, the suspension of this critical requirement is troubling.

The Brown Act was passed in 1953, and was largely the result of investigative work done by a San Francisco Chronicle reporter focusing on the problem of elected officials doing the public's business in private, leading to important decisions being made without the scrutiny of those who would be affected by them. It has been expanded over the years to better protect the public's right to know and to participate in the process of governance.

Open-government advocates have applauded these additions through the years, but what happened in June may have been the first time we've had to watch our lawmakers subtract from the law. It is a development that chisels away at the principle behind the Brown Act — that citizens must have access to their government and the ability to participate in its deliberative process, which under most circumstances must be conducted in public. The Legislature has sent the wrong message to public agencies in telling them that it is optional, not mandatory, to notify citizens that their elected officials and appointed boards will meet, and what's on the agenda.

Although local cities have stated their commitment to continue posting meeting agendas voluntarily, the public shouldn't have to rely on the government's willingness to disclose information citizens need to know if they are to participate in the public process. State lawmakers should reinstate the provision.