Michael Harris, the young reporter whose stories on government secrecy more than 60 years ago led to creation of the Brown Act and helped inspire a national reform for local government open meetings, has died. He was 92.
The San Francisco Chronicle reported Harris died at his home in Chevy Chase, Md., Oct. 2 after a brief illness.
Harris retired from the Chronicle in 1994. During his nearly 50-year-career, as Chronicle writer David Perlman put it, Harris “was in many ways the classic newspaperman: investigating evildoers, supporting the best of causes, writing features with verve and style, and composing essays with meticulous care.”
But it was his 10-part series in 1952 titled “Your Secret Government” about the sneaky practices of county supervisors, city council members and school districts in the Bay Area that led to creation of California’s landmark open meeting law for local governments.
In a 2012 telephone interview with Voice of OC, Harris recounted how Richard (Bud) Carpenter, legal counsel for the League of California Cities and then-Assemblyman Ralph M. Brown (D-Modesto) joined together to write the law that barred closed meetings of local government agencies. It later was expanded to state government bodies and has been reproduced in states across the nation.
As Terry Francke, general counsel for open government advocates Californians Aware wrote in his Harris obituary, “for Carpenter and the League, the main problem to be solved was not that there was no law requiring open meetings of local government bodies; it was that there were too many, each written to govern specific types of agencies—cities, counties, school and special district boards of various jurisdictions.”
Harris said poorly written existing laws sometimes required meetings to be open to the public, but local officials didn’t have to say where and when they were meeting. In other cases, he said, he simply was thrown out of local meetings when officials wanted to discuss something they didn’t want a news reporter or the public to hear.
So when Carpenter began drafting the law that Brown, a lawyer who had had his own experiences with local officials going into secret meetings, would carry, Harris was asked to write the preamble.
The idea was to strip legal and government jargon from the opening words of the Brown Act and make it perfectly clear to everyone what the Legislature and governor intended.
“You have to write the preamble,” and “write it in plain English,” Carpenter told Harris.
The preamble that Harris wrote to the Ralph M. Brown Act:
“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.”