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State Relaxes Public's Right to Know Rules

In an effort to save money, the state decided to suspend mandates that require local jurisdictions to keep the public informed by posting meeting agendas.

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 .

Summer Hemphill July 17, 2012 at 05:39 AM
Apartment building in flames next to the Post Office,dozens of firefighters,Cherry St. blocked !!!
Mona Taplin July 17, 2012 at 03:45 PM
I would not trust any city or school district that deliberately witholds information. they are hired by the people, and should be working for the people.
Nadja Adolf July 22, 2012 at 09:47 AM
Well Mona, for years the city did withhold information. For example, one could not obtain the crime data, required to be public by law, without filing a public records act request. This did NOT result in the timely release of information - and we lost several neighbors who assumed things were far worse than they were when they saw patrol cars stopped in the area. The fact that juveniles were being removed in handcuffs from the Junior High didn't mean that miniature terrorists were blowing the place up - but people were concerned and left the area when it was just the usual theft and drugs favored by apprentice gangsters.
Mona Taplin July 22, 2012 at 03:07 PM
I remember you saying this before, and I absolutely do not doubt your word, but we were getting information in our Neighborhood Watch group for at least the past 1o years that I was NW captain. Our neighborhood has remained quite stable over the years, with some of us being original home owners from the time these houses were built, mor than 40 years ago, and most neighbors being here for at least 25 or more years. I don't believe for a single minute that it's simply a matter of cost cutting that would allow cities and school districts to become more secretive. Do they have to pay to have information published in the local papers, on local news, or online? Just how gullible do they thing the public is anyway! Of course some legal investigations by police have to be kept under wraps for obvious reasons, but we do have a right to know what decisions the city council and school board make and why they make them.

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