Awareness Area: Government

Governor signs bill on local agency meeting agendas

A bill signed by Governor Brown requires local government bodies to link their meeting agendas to their websites’ home pages. AB 2257 by Assembly Member Brian Maienschein, signed by Governor Jerry Brown last Thursday, will beginning in January 2019 require local government councils, boards and commissions that have websites to post their meeting agendas on their primary site homepage, accessible through a prominent, direct link. A local body would be exempt from this requirement if it has an “integrated agenda management platform, namely one the publishes and archives all information about a specific meeting agenda,” provided that the most current agenda is the first available. See, for example, the agendas of the Sacramento City Council. Agendas posted to meet these requirements will be required to be: “retrievable, downloadable, indexable, and electronically searchable by commonly used Internet search applications; “platform independent and machine readable; and “available to the public free of charge and without any restriction that would impede the reuse or redistribution of the agenda.” Author Maienschein stated his rationale for the requirements thus: This legislation addresses two key deficiencies in current law; format and accessibility of online postings. Posting an agenda can mean many different things with respect to visibility and accessibility of the document. Many agendas are buried in agency websites or otherwise not intuitively navigable by a site visitor. Formatting may restrict the capacity for citizens to search for or access agenda information . . . AB 2257 will update the Ralph M. Brown Act by ensuring that meeting agendas are posted in a consistent, visible location on the homepage of the local agency’s internet website. It specifies that it must be a prominent, direct link to the agenda and prevents the […]

Lawsuit attacks trashing of politician’s records

Who do an elected official’s office records belong to? A lawsuit in Los Angeles may settle this still open question. The Los Angeles Times reports that the alleged wholesale removal and/or destruction last year of office files accumulated over the 14 year incumbency of a departing member of the Los Angeles City Council has prompted a lawsuit. Earlier this year FAC made a public records request to the city for three categories of records in which former Councilman Tom La Bonge had been involved—the Department of Water and Power, the California Film Commission, and a proposed housing development in Sherman Oaks— but was told they could not be found. The FAC lawsuit seeks a judicial order to the city to conduct a thorough search for the records and to begin complying with Government Code Section 34090. requiring cities to retain all records for at least two years. Records removal and destruction can be prosecuted as a crime. California Government Code Section 6200 states: Every officer having the custody of any record, map, or book, or of any paper or proceeding of any court, filed or deposited in any public office, or placed in his or her hands for any purpose, is punishable by imprisonment . . . for two, three, or four years if, as to the whole or any part of the record, map, book, paper, or proceeding, the officer willfully does or permits any other person to do any of the following: (a) Steal, remove, or secrete.   (b) Destroy, mutilate, or deface.   (c) Alter or falsify. Violations of this law are very rarely prosecuted, possibly because by the time district attorneys discover the statute, they have themselves trashed official records. For example, former […]

In San Francisco, another sunshine-reform effort

By Richard Knee A group of open-government activists is working to get a CalAware-endorsed measure strengthening San Francisco’s Sunshine Ordinance onto a future citywide ballot. CalAware’s  general counsel, Terry Francke, drafted the original language in the ordinance, which the city Board of Supervisors watered down and then passed in 1993, and voters approved a package of reforms to the law in November 1999. (Administrative Code Chapter 67) While San Francisco’s is the nation’s first and arguably strongest local sunshine ordinance, experience has shown that it is still far from ideal. City officials find plenty of loopholes, violate it without consequence and have used their appointive powers to sabotage the work of the city’s open-government watchdog panel, the Sunshine Ordinance Task Force. Ergo the current reform effort, and the group leading it has brought back the name of the organization that spearheaded the successful 1999 campaign, San Franciscans for Sunshine. SFS is trying to marshal the human and financial resources necessary to collect at least 9,500 valid signatures by Dec. 11 and qualify its SF Sunshine Ordinance Amendments initiative for the first citywide ballot after this November’s. That could come as soon as next March, particularly if a movement to recall Mayor Edwin Lee gains traction, but no later than June 2018. The measure’s text is accessible at the above-cited website. Its key provisions include: Mandating live televising or videostreaming of all public-body meetings in City Hall (Sec. 67.13(f)). Tightening requirements for public records retention, backup and access, in line with evolving information technology (Secs. 67.31(b) and (d) and 67.33). Requiring all elected City officials and all department heads to keep searchable logs of meetings they hold or attend in the conduct of city business, such […]

Charter school transparency bill faces likely veto

A bill that would place charter schools under the same transparency rules as their public counterparts faces a likely veto. AB 709 by Assembly Member Mike Gipson (D-Gardena) would put charter schools (except those on tribal reservations) under either the Brown Act or the Bagley-Keene Open Meeting Act—depending on whether their sponsors were local or state entities—as well as the California Public Records Act and state laws barring conflicts of interests in government and requiring the filing of public statements of economic interests by the board members and key employees. The need for such sunshine regulation, at least in some states, is suggested by an August 21 report on John Oliver’s “Last Week Tonight” program. The bill got a final vote of approval Wednesday (August 24) and is now headed for the Governor’s desk. It may well die there as did a similar measure last year, because Governor Brown, as mayor of Oakland, founded two charter schools there and, according to columnist Dan Walters, has “placed $20 million in ‘startup funds’ for new charters in his 2016-17 budget.”

Israel boycott bill likely to disappoint backers

It often appears that Sacramento lawmakers who swarm to pass bills infringing free speech and press rights do so with a tin ear to the First Amendment because they trust that the courts can and will iron out any such deficiencies—and meanwhile they don’t want to frustrate what they see as popular demand, particularly from generous sources of campaign contributions. Such seems to be the case with AB 2844, at this writing just one vote (and a sure thing at that) away from the Governor’s desk. The bill provides that A person that . . . proposes to enter into or renew a contract with a state agency . . . in the amount of one hundred thousand dollars ($100,000) or more shall certify, under penalty of perjury, at the time the bid or proposal is submitted or the contract is renewed, all of the following: (a) That they are in compliance with the Unruh Civil Rights Act. (b) That they are in compliance with the California Fair Employment and Housing Act. (c) That any policy that they have against any sovereign nation or peoples recognized by the government of the United States, including, but not limited to, the nation and people of Israel, is not used to discriminate in violation of the Unruh Civil Rights Act or the California Fair Employment and Housing Act. In other words, at the time of a contract award or renewal valued at $100,000 or more, a person seeking the state’s business must swear that any politically motivated boycott against the State of Israel (among others) that they’re a party to does not violate California laws barring discrimination against people seeking housing, employment or other economic relationships. The bill thus admittedly […]

More sunshine due on local government executive pay

Governor Brown yesterday (August 22) signed into law, effective January 1, an amendment to the Ralph M. Brown Act requiring local government bodies, prior to voting in open session to approve new pay or benefit levels for their agency’s executives, to “orally report a summary of (the) recommendation” for the increase. Senator Patricia Bates (R-Laguna Hills) won approval for her SB 1436, which had no opposition, by votes of 37-0 in the Senate and 77-0 in the Assembly. The bill is the latest in a series of transparency reforms prompted by the pay scandal in the City of Bell. The most recent previous safeguard was to prohibit compensation approvals for “local agency executives” at special meetings, which allow action upon only 24 hours public notice, and confine such action to regular meetings, whose agendas must be posted 72 hours in advance. The “public agency executive” category is defined to include those who are not covered by a collective bargaining agreement and who are either the CEO, deputy CEO or assistant CEO of the agency, or a department head, or who work under an employment contract. Bates said her bill was needed to combat at least some agencies’ tendencies to duck timely public awareness of executive compensation proposals. Transparency in local government decisionmaking, particularly when it comes to executive compensation, is a valuable safeguard against improper behavior and helps ensure that taxpayer and ratepayer dollars are effectively spent. Local agency executives, such as agency CEOs and city managers, are offered fringe benefits including health care coverage and pensions in amounts that can have a significant long-term impact on the budget and that deserve particular scrutiny by the public. SB 1436 encourages the active discussion of the […]

L.A. Supervisors to openly OK their lobbying letters

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors has quietly abandoned the practice of secretly signing all members’ names to letters sent to the Legislature and/or Governor expressing support or opposition to particular legislation. As can be seen in items 11 and 22 on the agenda for tomorrow’s (August 23) meeting, any lobbying letters signed by at least a majority of the Board will henceforth be described on the agenda and approved by public vote. The new policy results from a lawsuit filed May 8 of last year by Kelly Aviles, Californians Aware’s Vice President for Open Government  Compliance, alleging a violation of the Brown Act when all five Supervisors (the majority of whom have since departed from the Board) affixed their signature to letters sent to Sacramento opposing AB 194, a bill that would have improved protection for citizens’ ability to address local government bodies at their meetings. The petition in Californians Aware v. Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors also sought a court order prohibiting the Board from using a series of communications, either directly or through intermediaries, to discuss, deliberate, and take action on specific legislation, outside of a noticed and public meeting. CalAware went to court, according to General Counsel Terry Francke, only when the Board rejected its demand to publicly renounce the practice of discussing or acting on legislative issues outside of open and public meetings. Then County Counsel Mark Saladino took the position that the personal signature gathering, accomplished by walking the staff-drafted letter opposing the bill from one Supervisor’s office to another, was a mere formality.  The Board’s opposition, he says, had already been approved in two previous ways. First, he said, it adopted a December 2013 a general policy […]

Recording legislators in action—or in revolt

The sit-in demonstration by House Democrats this past week, attempting to force a vote on a relatively modest gun measure (denying sales to those on the federal no-fly list) became visible and audible to the world, thanks to several members’ video-capable smartphones and internet posting software—despite Speaker Paul Ryan’s ordered shutdown of live C-SPAN coverage. As noted in a Sacramento Bee editorial, technology, and especially social media applications and impulses, have thus ended Congressional leaders’ traditional blackout power over how much the public is allowed to see and hear of what its representatives say and do. Turning the video cameras off at certain key points or restricting what they are permitted to focus on—by order of the leadership—is likewise not unknown in the California Legislature. That fact has led the authors of the initiative ballot measure called the California Legislature Transparency Act to propose amending the state constitution to give spectators in any open committee or house proceeding the right to make and share, as widely and as soon as they please, their own video and/or audio recordings of anything they can see or hear. The Act’s language, expected momentarily to be placed on the November ballot, includes the following provision: The proceedings of each house and the committees thereof shall be open and public. The right to attend open and public proceedings includes the right of any person to record by audio or video means any and all parts of he proceedings and to broadcast or otherwise transmit them; provided that the Legislature may adopt reasonable rules . . .regulating the placement and use of the equipment for recording or broadcasting the proceedings for the sole purpose of minimizing disruption of the proceedings. Any […]

Democrats pursue “transparency lite” strategy

Nervous that voters in November might pass a widely endorsed ballot measure to end eleventh hour surprise legislation in Sacramento, the Democrat majorities in the Senate and Assembly are working on a tamer competing measure they hope will get more votes. Were it to get the most votes, the citizen initiative-launched California Legislature Transparency Act (CLTA) would not only put a three-day reaction pause (the same as in the Brown Act’s rule for local government agency action) between a proposal’s committee-approved form and its floor vote in either the full Assembly or Senate. It would also:  require all legislative hearings and floor sessions to be video-recorded, made promptly accessible on the internet, and archived for 20 years; and  give any citizen spectators in these sessions the right to make their own videos of whatever they can see or hear, and share or publish them as they please, the same as in the Brown Act. Moreover, the CLTA would become part of the state constitution, and as such could only be amended or repealed by a vote of the people. Four reform bills seeking the 72-hour delay before a vote in either house have been introduced in the last four years—three by Republicans and one by the author of the current Democrat transparency measure. Not one was even assigned to a committee, much less given a hearing. In reaction to the Democrats’ recent rush to adopt their own ballot measure, editorials in the Orange County Register, the Los Angeles Daily News and the San Francisco Chronicle are crying foul.

Federal FOIA Improvement Act goes to the President

The U.S. Senate yesterday sent to the President, who is widely expected to sign it into law, S. 337, the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) Improvement Act of 2016, after years of slow progress and setbacks in Congress. The bipartisan bill governing public access to federal agency records reflects the work of sponsoring Senator John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont), as well as Reps. Daryl Issa (R-California) and Elijah Cummings (D-Maryland). The bill amends the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to, as described by CONGRESS.GOV, require federal agencies to make their disclosable records and documents available for public inspection in an electronic format; require agencies to proactively make available for inspection in an electronic format records that have been requested three or more times (frequently requested records) prohibit an agency from charging a fee for providing records if the agency misses a deadline for complying with an FOIA request unless unusual circumstances apply and more than 5,000 pages are necessary to respond to the request prohibit an agency from withholding information requested under FOIA unless the agency reasonably foresees that disclosure would harm an interest protected by a FOIA exemption or disclosure is prohibited by law (presumption of openness); limit the FOIA exemption for agency communications (deliberative process privilege) to allow the disclosure of agency records created 25 years or more before the date of a FOIA request; require the Office of Government Information Services (OGIS) to offer mediation services to resolve disputes between agencies and FOIA requesters; expand the authority and duties of the Chief FOIA Officer of each agency to require officers to serve as the primary agency liaison with OGIS and the Office of Information Policy; establish a Chief FOIA […]