The Legislature’s strongest advocate for government transparency has introduced a state constitutional amendment to ensure that government councils, boards and commissions follow requirements to post meeting agendas and to disclose any actions taken.
Senator Leland Yee (D-San Francisco) introduced Senate Constitutional Amendment (SCA) 7 Friday after years in which fundamentally important provisions of the Ralph M. Brown Act—the state’s main open government law—have been suspended or threatened during state fiscal crises.
Under state law, local governments must be reimbursed the cost of fulfilling statutory requirements—state mandated costs—enacted by the Legislature. But when the voters approve such a law via a ballot initiative measure, no state reimbursement is necessary. Such would be the case under SCA 7, which would add to the constitution the simple mandate: "Each public body shall provide public notice of its meetings and shall publicly disclose any action taken."
Despite open government advocates' arguments that there are no significant costs that should be reimbursable by the state for simply posting a single copy of an agenda in a publicly accessible location and reporting action taken in closed session, the Commission on State Mandates has honored local agencies' cost claims to the tune of about $20 million annually.
Because of this long history of bloated and unjustifiable charges to the state, the Legislature and the Governor suspended the Brown Act for a period of time in 1991 and the public’s rights continue to be threatened every time there is a budget shortfall. Last year the Brown Act was not funded in the state budget, which has created confusion about whether or not public bodies currently need to follow the agenda posting and reporting laws.
“Californians have a fundamental right to know what their government is doing,” said Yee. “One only needs to look at corruption within the City of Bell to realize that the Brown Act should never be compromised. Our open meeting laws are too important to be made optional every time the state runs short of money. SCA 7 will ensure government agencies provide the public the information they deserve.”
“SCA 7 will once and for all require local public bodies – city councils, county boards of supervisors, school boards and special districts – to give the public ample notice of meetings and actions,” said Tom Newton, General Counsel to the California Newspaper Publishers Association. “An open door means nothing if folks don’t know the location, time and place of the meeting and the issues to be discussed or decided.”
“Senator Yee's proposed state constitutional amendment would provide an important safeguard for people wanting to know – as is their right – about the decisions of their local lawmakers and the bases for those decisions,” said Richard Knee, Chair of the San Francisco Sunshine Ordinance Task Force. “The Brown Act and the Public Records Act are the twin pillars of sunshine – i.e. government transparency and accountability – in California. And sunshine adherence is part of the job of every government official and employee in California.”
“It is extremely important that the Brown Act remain the law of the state - otherwise our elected officials will be accountable to no one,” said Dean Metzger, Chair of the Berkeley Citizen’s Sunshine Committee.
“Publishing informative agenda notices for local government meetings and timely and candid post-meeting action announcements should not be left to depend on the vicissitudes of state fiscal health, which will not be sound for years to come,” said Terry Francke, General Counsel for Californians Aware.
SCA 7 will require approval by two-thirds of the Legislature before qualifying for a statewide ballot in November or in a special election that may be called in June.
In 2004, nearly 83 percent of voters approved Proposition 59 – the Constitutional Sunshine Amendment – which provided the public greater access to government documents. It is expected that SCA 7 would face a similar overwhelming approval by the voters.