Home News Editorial: Stop eroding California’s Brown Act transparency law for local government

Editorial: Stop eroding California’s Brown Act transparency law for local government

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Last year, we warned that California residents could soon find their local city councils, school boards or planning commissions meeting completely virtually.

In this scenario, residents could walk into, say, the council chambers at city hall only to find no one at the dais and the policymakers on a monitor on the wall.

Some of our local leaders, with the cooperation of state lawmakers, are trying to eventually make this surreal scenario a reality by chipping away at the state’s open-meeting law for local government.

They fell short of the ultimate goal in the state Legislature last year, but they’re at it again, this time targeting transparency rules for boards they claim are merely advisory, but are often critical in the policymaking process.

They’re working toward government solely by teleconference, in which members of the public and press might never see meetings in person, never be able to approach board members with questions and never be able to observe the body language between them.

Our representatives would become merely boxes on a video screen.

That scenario made sense during the height of the COVID pandemic, when social distancing was necessary for protecting public health. But that was to be the exception, not the rule.

State senators should stop Assembly Bill 817, introduced by Assemblymember Blanca Pacheco, D-Downey. It’s yet another step down the slippery slope toward local government secrecy — another attempt to weaken key provisions of the state’s open meeting law for local government.

1953 law

The Ralph M. Brown Act was a 1953 response to news reports that elected officials often conducted public business in private. Back then, members of a city council, for example, would hash out decisions in advance and then merely formalize them, often without discussion, at an open meeting.

The Brown Act sought to ensure that government officials conducted their business in public so that their constituents could watch them in action. Not just the final decision-making, but also the deliberative process that led up to it.

Now the Brown Act and the similar Bagley-Keene Act for state boards are under assault by government leaders who want to operate with less public oversight. The Legislature last year passed, and Gov. Gavin Newsom signed, Senate Bill 544, which hinders public access to advisory meetings of state agency advisory boards.

Pacheco’s AB 817 would do the same thing for local government “advisory” boards. But the boards affected by the bill are often not merely innocuous groups that throw out ideas for policymakers to adopt. Their meetings are often the place where tough decisions get made.

We’re talking about panels like a city council budget subcommittee comprised of representatives of the very body of elected officials that will make the final decision, a police review commission or an elections commission.

The final “recommendations” of these “advisory” boards are often sent to a decision-making board — a city council, school board or county board of supervisors — for quick and perfunctory ratification.

It’s deliberations like those of these “advisory” boards that the Brown Act sought to expose to full sunlight. It is where the sausage gets made — where public oversight is critical, where board members should not be able to hide in a virtual world.

As we learned during the pandemic, important interactions in the local government decision-making process were lost during remote meetings. Community groups were unable to demonstrate the size of their support by the number of people they turned out. The public and the media could not approach board members and staff before and after meetings with questions.

Undermining compromise

To be sure, there are good reasons for remote participation by board members. People might have health issues or family emergencies that require videoconferencing. But that should be the exception, not the rule.

In 2022, a coalition of open-government advocates and state lawmakers hammered out legislation that Gov. Gavin Newsom signed, balancing the need for transparency with legitimate situations where remote participation is understandable.

Assembly Bill 2449 limits remote participation by board members to no more than three consecutive months or 20% of meetings in a year. At least a quorum of members of the legislative body must participate from a single public location, such as a city council chamber, where the public can be present.

But secrecy advocates, led by groups like the League of California Cities and the California State Association of Counties — groups that represent elected officials who find transparency an inconvenience — keep trying to undermine the accord.

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