The state Senate last week unanimously approved legislation that asks voters to make California’s nearly 60-year-old open meeting law part of the state constitution.
Sen. Leland Yee (D-San Francisco) said a constitutional amendment is needed because some local jurisdictions have used the state’s financial crisis as an excuse to stop providing proper public notice of meetings and agenda items.
A constitutional amendment would require local governments to meet all of the open meeting rules and would eliminate the requirement for the state to reimburse them, he said.
Under the current law, known as the Ralph M. Brown Act, city councils, school boards, boards of supervisors and other local agencies are required to post a notice in a public place listing where and when meetings will be held and what will be discussed. The Brown Act became law in 1953.
But in 1991, during another time of financial stress, the Legislature and governor temporarily suspended the Brown Act. Since then, Yee said in a news release, some jurisdictions have stopped posting notices or complying with other Brown Act regulations during tight budgetary times.
And because no money was included in last year’s state budget to reimburse local governments for Brown Act expenses, there has been “confusion about whether or not public bodies currently need to follow the agenda-posting and reporting laws,” Yee said in the release.
The last time the state allocated money for the Brown Act, $20 million was dispersed statewide to all jurisdictions governed by the act, Yee said in the release.
The state constitution already requires, with very few exceptions, that meetings be open to the public, but it does not include the same notice requirements as the Brown Act.
Terry Francke — founder of Californians Aware, an expert on the Brown Act and a partner of Voice of OC — said the constitution’s requirements are “meaningless if government bodies are not required to tell the public where and when the meetings are to be held and what issues will be considered.
“This amendment ensures that those obligations don’t vanish from the law because local public officials are demanding larcenous amounts from the state for the supposed cost of posting agendas.”
Yee’s bill was sent to the Assembly, where it must receive approval from two-thirds of the 80 members to go before voters in 2012.
— TRACY WOOD