It’s once again the season for cities, counties, school districts and other local governments to begin matching foreseeable income to existing or desired programs for the coming fiscal year and, times being what they are, often deciding which Peter to rob to pay which Paul.  The budget proposals see the first light of day in committees of less than a majority of the city council, board of supervisors or school trustees, who will later deliver preliminary recommendations to the governing body. 

Or rather they should see the first light of day in these committees.  In too many cases, the involved officials would just as soon discuss and decide recommended cutbacks, closed facilities or transferred resources behind closed doors—delaying the inevitable protests from staff members or program beneficiaries, and avoiding what may be premature anxieties or misleading rumors about budget options that may never be pursued.  This aversion is perfectly understandable as a human tendency, but it also fails to recognize that a big part of what officials are elected to do is precisely to use their judgment in making often distasteful and sometimes painful choices in how public money will be spent, standing ready to account for what they decide.  It also fails to acknowledge that discussions and preliminary decisions shielded from public observation may suffer from  misinformation and faulty assumptions that early public feedback might have corrected.

The officials choosing secrecy for this process typically note that, under the Ralph M. Brown Act, while standing committees of less than a majority of the governing body are subject to all the open meeting rules that apply to the parent body, an ad hoc committee of less than a majority—which has no “continuing subject matter jurisdiction” or “meeting schedule fixed by charter, ordinance, resolution, or formal action” of the parent body, can meet privately.  They argue that a budget committee has no more continuity than a few meetings over a few weeks or months in the spring, and thus is exempt from Brown Act requirements.

That position reads the phrase “continuing subject matter jurisdiction” narrowly, contrary to the California Constitutional requirement added by Proposition 59 of 2004 that language extending the open meeting requirement (in this case, to committee work) must be read broadly.  While budgeting committees do not meet throughout the calendar, they do have a perfectly recurring periodic function—a continuity of jurisdiction or delegated purpose from one year to the next.  The direct analogy is provided by the budget committees of the Assembly and Senate in Sacramento, which are classified as standing committees and which are required to meet openly the same as any other committee.

When local budget committees deny application of the open meeting requirement, those not allowed in or asked to leave are usually reporters.  Just yesterday for example, the Grass Valley Union notes, the Nevada County Supervisors’ Budget Review Committee, comprising two supervisors, gave a private audience to a representative of local chambers of commerce which were jointly requesting a $125,000 subsidy for 2008-2009—up from the $115,000 received for this fiscal year. A representative for the nonprofit Economic Resource Council was also present to ask for $85,000—up $10,000 from the current year’s grant.  But the newspaper adds,

A reporter from The Union was denied access into the budget committee meeting  . . . Closing the meeting to the public was justified, because the two committee members— supervisors Ted Owens and Hank Weston—did not constitute a quorum of the five-person board, according to County Counsel Rob Shulman.

But the permanent or standing character of the committee is underscored by an entry on the Committees and Commissions page of the county website, which lists “BUDGET REVIEW COMMITTEE (established in 1997) (meets frequently in Spring).”

Not long ago a similar confrontation occurred in Glenn County, where the Sacramento Valley Mirror in Willows reported that the Board of Supervisors terminated its two-member budget committee as the only way to keep its reporter out, leaving all budget recommendations to be developed by department heads.  The Mirror is now suing the supervisors for keeping the reporter out of the committee meeting, which had been public in prior years.