UPDATED: State Allows Cities To Become Less Transparent

In an effort to save money, the state decided to suspend mandates that require local jurisdictions to keep the public informed. The mayors of Los Altos and Los Altos Hills said they'll continue to post agendas, even if not required.


Editor's note: This story has been updated to include the comments from the Los Altos School Board president and the chairman of the Bullis Charter School.

Cities 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—cities, counties, school districts, water districts and special districts—post meeting agendas for the public. The suspension 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 transparency mandates is unknown. Locally, initial response indicates that the city of Los Altos won't change anything. Nor will Los Altos Hills.

"I'm confident that the City of Los Altos will continue to comply with all aspects of the Brown Act, including posting meeting agendas and reporting out of closed sessions," said Val Carpenter, mayor of Los Altos.

"The Los Altos City Council and City staff are committed to being as transparent as we can be to ensure that our residents and other stakeholders are kept fully informed on issues that matter to them."

Los Altos Hills Mayor Rich Larsen, wrote an e-mail from vacation: "Los Altos Hills will continue to post meeting agendas and report out as appropriate. We have no current plans to change our practices."

Los Altos School Board president Mark Goines said he didn't anticipate any changes, but if there were, that the board would talk about it in open session after placing it on the agenda, as its usual practice.

Bullis Charter School chairman Ken Moore had not heard of the action of the state legislature, he said, but added, "I expect  BCS to continue its current practice regarding posting agendas and reporting out of closed sessions."

The League of California Cities is expected to release an official statement on the issue next 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.”

How the state came to the decision of suspending the Brown Act mandates boiled down to one thing: money. In California, mandates placed on local jurisdictions by Sacramento must be funded by the state. In the case of the Brown Act mandates, the state was subsidizing nearly $100 million a year by some estimates.

So in an effort to cut expenditures, the state decided to suspend the mandates. 

But according to watchdog Californians Aware—a group that tries to foster improvement of, compliance with and public understanding and use of, public forum law, which deals with what rights citizens have to know what is going in in government—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.

It was unknown over the weekend whether any Los Altos or Los Altos Hills jurisdictions had filed for reimbursements.

State 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.

Los Altos Patch will continue to update this article. 

—Additional reporting by Patch editor L.A. Chung

Jan Pepper July 16, 2012 at 06:31 AM
It is extremely important that local agencies, including the Los Altos City Council, endeavor to be as transparent as possible by continuing to post agendas and report out on closed session actions. I am glad to see that Los Altos is planning to continue this practice, even without reimbursement from the state. Informing the public about the agendas for public agencies is part of our democratic process. Providing information for active public participation allows many voices to be heard and better decisions to be made, on important issues affecting our city. As an employee in another local city, I am actively involved in meetings with joint power agencies. Posting agendas is not a big effort. And since meeting minutes are already being taken, reporting out on closed session actions is not a burden. From my perspective, the incremental cost for local jurisdictions to perform these actions is insignificant. However, the importance of transparent government is extremely significant and must be encouraged. Jan Pepper Los Altos


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