Perhaps Copy of Brown Act Should Go Next to the Gideon Bible

Hotel rooms in Anaheim will cost 2 percent more beginning in November due to a tourism tax the City Council passed this week. (Photo credit: unknown)

Hotel rooms in Anaheim will cost 2 percent more beginning in November due to a tourism tax the City Council passed this week. (Photo credit: unknown)

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The Anaheim City Council this week gave final approval to an additional 2 percent tax on hotel stays in and around Disneyland, which means that tourism officials will have about $9 million more than they do now to promote the city’s hotels and attractions.

It also means that in the course of handling all this money, the city’s tourism executives will have to know California’s open government laws, in particular the Brown Act. And judging from comments made by one official, they’ve got a lot to learn.

The tourism improvement district that the City Council approved is to be created and run by the Anaheim/Orange County Visitor and Convention Bureau. And it will clearly be subject to the Brown Act, California’s open meeting law, said officials from other cities and Terry Francke, general counsel of CalAware and Voice of OC’s open government consultant.

Yet Charles Ahlers, president of the Visitor and Convention Bureau, acknowledged Wednesday that he barely knows anything about the Brown Act.

“I’m sorry I’m not up on the law. I’m not an attorney — I have no experience with the Brown Act,” Ahlers said.

Ahlers told the City Council on Tuesday night that the bureau plans to hold a public meeting each year. But the Brown Act requires far more than that.

From the Brown Act:

In enacting this chapter, the Legislature finds and declares that the public commissions, boards and councils and the other public agencies in this State exist to aid in the conduct of the people’s business.

It is the intent of the law that their actions be taken openly and that their deliberations be conducted openly. The people of this State do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies which serve them.

The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know. The people insist on remaining informed so that they may retain control over the instruments they have created.

When Newport Beach adopted its tourism improvement district, it held special classes for those who would be running the district to make sure they understood the Brown Act. Anaheim hasn’t said if it will similarly train leaders of the tourism district.

Francke said a complaint from a Los Angeles merchant that he had trouble getting into a meeting of a special district led to two decisions from an appellate court that held the city “had enough fingerprints, so-to-speak, on the formation” of the district that the fact that it was “actually administered by the nonprofit did not mean they were outside the orbit of the Brown Act.”

Francke said the appellate court decisions were “merchant friendly” and “taxpayer friendly.”

“A hotel in the district,” he said, “should thank its lucky stars they can get into the meeting” where decisions are made on issues, like how the money will be spent.

And finally, the section of California law that allows for the formation of improvement districts states that associations “shall comply with the Ralph M. Brown Act at all times when matters within the subject matter of the district are heard, discussed, or deliberated, and with the California Public Records Act, for all documents relating to activities of the district.”

Ahlers said leaders of the new Tourism Improvement District will follow the Brown Act, if that is what they are supposed to do.

“Whatever the law is, we’re going to comply,” he said. “So what’s your point?”

— TRACY WOOD

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