OPEN MEETINGS — "A little noticed item in Governor Schwarzenegger's
revised budget is a great example of how efforts to craft a balanced
state spending plan have truly become equivalent to searching your couch
for spare change," observes KQED Sacramento Bureau Chief John Myers in his blog, Capital Notes. The proposal: stop requiring local governments to post agendas notifying the public about meetings under the Brown Act, "thus
suspending the state's obligation to pay for the cost of all that
The issue was the subject of a short but somewhat surreal discussion in a
Senate budget subcommittee on Wednesday. And here's why this is a
fiscal issue: because the state, through laws enacted over the years, mandates
that local officials post meeting agendas, provide copies of documents,
and more. The law says when the state mandates something to the
locals, then the state must also reimburse the locals.
The tasks performed by cities, counties, community colleges, and more
may sound like ones that are required under California's landmark open
government law, known as the Brown Act.
But in fact, says
a quick FAQ on this proposal from the Legislative Analyst's Office,
the 1953 law focuses on the public's access to the actual meetings
not the public's access to relevant documents related to those meetings
of elected officials.
In testimony Wednesday, LAO analyst Marianne O'Malley
told senators that the costs of reimbursing local governments for all
of the staff time to prepare agendas, make copies, etc. now runs as much
as $20 million a year.
Setting aside one's desire for open and transparent government, you
might say $20 million is a lot of money. But here's the catch: the
actual amount of unpaid bills that are due in 2010-11 is much less:
The Schwarzenegger administration's remedy simply suspend the
mandate does seem to beg the question: would local officials just stop
providing documents to the public about what they're doing?
O'Malley said the LAO's recommendation is to delete the funding, but
tell local governments that they can't just turn off their Xerox
machines, thanks to 2004's Proposition
59. That constitutional amendment guarantees public access to the
"writings of public officials." And so the LAO says the Legislature
should tell the locals that even without the mandate, they have to
comply with Prop 59. In the words of analyst O'Malley: either keep
disseminating info without being paid back or do "something else of
In other words: don't come to us to subsidize transparency in
government, but don't expect you can just start blocking the public's
access to documents.
The discussion about what would seem to be a fundamental right of
the public seemed to leave everyone a bit bewildered, but resigned to
accepting a plan that sounds a little bit like the honor system, all in
the name of saving a buck.
"We're putting faith in local government to do the right thing," said
subcommittee chair Sen.Mark DeSaulnier (D-Concord). And with that, the LAO recommendation was ratified. Chalk up $362,000
in deficit relief. Only $17,863,800,000 more to go.
CalAware's alternative substitute for the mandate, suggested this morning to Tom Newton, chief lobbyist for the California Newspaper Publishers Association. Make failure to post agendas as now required a strict liability misdemeanor for local body members and/or the staff responsible for posting, i.e. with no need to prove awareness of the failure to post or intent to deceive the public. A little like drunk driving. After all, officials have had a generation at least to get used to the need to alert the public on what their meetings will be about.