Editor's Note: In recognition of the 60th anniversary of California’s Ralph M. Brown open-meeting law, Voice of OC will publish occasional stories throughout the year about the law’s history, impact and future.
Sixty years ago Assemblyman Ralph M. Brown of Modesto, acting in part on his own experiences with the secrecy of local government officials, authored California’s landmark open-meeting law to ensure bodies like boards of supervisors and city councils conducted their business in public.
“The people of this State do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies which serve them,” states the preamble to the Ralph M. Brown Act. “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.”
Those are the words of Michael Harris, a young reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle who, in 1952, wrote a 10-part series on secrecy practiced by supervisors, council members and school districts in the Bay Area.
His work, “Your Secret Government,” brought together the League of California Cities, the California Newspaper Publishers Association and Brown, a Democrat who later became speaker of the Assembly and then a state appeals court judge. The bill had bipartisan support and was signed by Republican Gov. Earl Warren.
Brown, a Democrat, died 47 years ago, but his signature legislative accomplishment has grown from a 2½-page law when it was passed in 1953 to 45 pages as efforts continue to close loopholes and ensure the right of all people to have access to the meetings where the public’s business is conducted.
Although open-government advocates say there are aspects of the law that remain weak, including enforcement, it has had a transformative effect on local government in California and throughout the nation.
Now 90 and living in Chevy Chase, Md., Harris said that when the law was being drafted, Richard (Bud) Carpenter, legal counsel for the League of California Cities that helped write the act, told him its guiding principles couldn’t be written by lawyers.
According to Harris, Carpenter said, “You have to write the preamble,” and “write it in plain English.”
The Dark Ages of Government
Research by Californians Aware, an open-government watchdog organization, shows California cities and counties as far back as their foundings in the mid-1800s had some sort of requirement that meetings be public.
And in a 1999 article in Western City magazine, Carpenter was quoted as saying the cities weren’t the real problem. Other local agencies like irrigation districts weren’t covered by any law and were used to meeting, sometimes literally, at a moment’s notice. The Brown Act expanded open-meeting requirements to cover all local agencies.
“Frankly, the League believed there was no reason why cities should continue to take the brunt of the constant press criticism over alleged secret meetings,” Carpenter said in the Western City interview.
But Harris said that when he was investigating secret meetings in the Bay Area, he discovered that while cities had local ordinances that opened meetings to the public, the laws were in most ways toothless, lacking basic provisions like requirements that agencies announce in advance when and where meetings were to take place.
If someone figured it out and showed up, they were allowed in, but as Harris learned firsthand, members of the public could be shown the door when local officials decided it wasn’t convenient to work in public. “I got kicked out of meetings, of course," Harris said.
A history of open-meeting laws published by the Modesto Bee last year stated that England created one in 1909 and Wisconsin had a series of basic laws dating to the 19th century. Alabama required open meetings, but officials were not required to tell the public where or when they would meet.
But within six years of California’s adoption of the Brown Act, 19 other states followed suit. Now all 50 states require meetings to be open to the public.
In California, it was personal experience that showed Brown and Harris the need for the law.
Harris said he was working the night desk at the Chronicle in late 1951 when, one after another, three unconnected readers called to complain they had been kicked out of three different public meetings.
He went to his city editor and proposed a series of stories on public access to local government meetings. Harris said that while visiting the cities and counties around San Francisco, he was barred several times from different types of government meetings.
“One person demanded that I prove I was a reporter” before being allowed in, he said. Another time in Oakland, city officials made him leave a meeting they didn’t want covered. So, said Harris, he sat outside in the hallway by the closed door and listened to what was going on inside.
In other communities, he said, “there were meetings in basements, in a couple of cases unannounced.”
The League of Cities helped draft a law, based on Harris’ findings, and with support from the California Newspaper Publishers Association, they turned to the Legislature.
In Brown they found a sympathetic ally. He was first elected to the Assembly in 1943 and was known as a “consensus maker," according to his grandson, Gregory Pierson, a corporate attorney who lives in Newport Beach.
Brown had his own encounters with local-government secrecy. The state Legislature was still a part-time job in the early 1950s, so Brown, who earned his undergraduate degree at the UC Berkeley and a law degree from Stanford, had kept up his law practice.
According to Brown’s daughter, Valerie Pierson of Modesto, on more than one occasion he went to an open local-government meeting in the Modesto area on behalf of clients. While he was there, the officials would agree to one thing, but after he left, they would meet in secret to change their votes.
“I remember him talking about going to meetings and having things decided and the next day finding out they had a meeting after the meeting, and that’s when they really decided things,” Pierson said.
As Harris noted, when it came to open meetings, “Ralph Brown had been double-crossed himself.”
It apparently didn't dawn on these officials that the lawyer they were trying to hoodwink had the power to write laws. In January of 1953, he introduced a bill that nine months later would become the Ralph M. Brown Act after a generally smooth journey through the Legislature.
Unlike today, when political parties divide lawmakers, “there was no partisanship” and “almost no fighting on this one,” Harris said
The complete current version of the Brown Act is available here.