City councils, school districts and other local jurisdictions now have the option of becoming a lot more secretive — if they choose.
Last month, the state Legislature suspended the Brown Act mandate that local jurisdictions post meeting agendas for the public. The suspension, a cost-cutting measure, also allows local jurisdictions to forgo reporting to the public about actions taken during closed-session meetings.
How many California municipalities will choose to abandon the right-to-know mandates is unknown.
The League of California Cities is expected to release an official statement on the issue this week, but the organization’s Communications Director Eva Spiegel said for now the suggestion to cities is “stick with the status quo."
“The League has been very involved with the Brown Act,” she said. “We have always encouraged transparency.”
The move is to save money. In California, mandates on local jurisdictions are state-funded. Brown Act mandates have been costing the state at estimated $100 million a year.
According to watchdog Californians Aware, local jurisdictions learned how to milk the system.
They “could get a windfall of cash for doing something they had always done: preparing and posting meeting agendas for their governing and other bodies as mandated by Brown Act amendments passed in 1986 — but as, in fact, routinely done anyway since time immemorial to satisfy practical and political expectations,” the nonprofit reported Friday.
For example, in Murrieta, a more than 100,000-population city in southern California's Riverside County, in fiscal year 2010 the city's claim for Brown mandates was $24,418, which was not nearly as high as fiscal year 2006 when it reached $36,425.
Murrieta City Attorney Leslie Devaney said the issue is just now getting the attention of local jurisdictions, and there is still sorting out to do. Senator Leland Yee (D-San Francisco) has introduced a Senate Constitutional Amendment (SCA 7) that would ask California voters if they want the transparency. The amendment is stalled in committee.
"To anyone who's been watching this issue for a while, the real news is not that the Brown Act can be so dependent on the state budget," said Terry Franke, a California media law expert who is General Counsel, Californians Aware. "The real news is that 17 people in Sacramento are denying the public the chance to say 'Enough'."
In the meantime, the suspension could last through 2015, so it appears the public will need to demand transparency from its representatives if it wants to stay informed.
A version of this story first appeared on the .