City, schools to maintain meeting agendas despite Brown Act suspensions

City, schools to maintain meeting agendas despite Brown Act suspensions

Michele Ellson

Local officials said they’ll continue to provide timely notification of upcoming City Council, school board and other meetings despite state lawmakers’ decision to partially suspend the requirement – and the state funding associated with it.

Lawmakers suspended a provision of the Ralph M. Brown Act that requires cities, counties, school and special districts to publicly post meeting agendas 72 hours before their meetings are held and others that require disclosures about business discussed in closed-door meetings. The cost-cutting move would reportedly save the state $96 million; the suspension is to be in place through June 30, 2015.

Lawmakers previously suspended the same provisions in 1990, according to the League of California Cities, whose leaders said they worked with the California Newspaper Publishers Association to get the Brown Act passed in 1953 in an effort to standardize open meeting requirements. At that time, most cities reported they would continue to comply with the requirements, according to a League press release issued after the June 27 passage of the budget trailer bills that authorized the suspension.

California’s constitution requires the state to reimburse local agencies for lawmaker-imposed mandates like the noticing requirements, which were enacted after the reimbursement rule was passed, though those reimbursements haven’t always come.

The city’s noticing requirements are more stringent than those mandated by the Brown Act, thanks to a Sunshine Ordinance enacted by the City Council in November. And those requirements will remain in place despite lawmakers’ decision, City Clerk Lara Weisiger said.

The ordinance requires the city to release the council’s meeting agendas and materials – staff reports, correspondence, contracts and other related items – 11 days before their regular meetings and seven days before special meetings; agendas and materials for the city’s boards and commissions must also be released a week before those bodies meet. The ordinance contains an exception for urgent items, and it created an Open Government Commission to hear complaints.

“This timeline not only provides the public with sufficient time to review pertinent staff reports and accompanying materials, but it also allows more time for policy makers to review and digest the information prior to making their votes,” an October 18 staff report from then-Acting City Attorney Donna Mooney, Weisiger and City Manager John Russo said.

Alameda Hospital’s Kristen Thorson said the hospital will continue their standard practice of posting a preliminary agenda and available meeting materials a week before the Alameda Health Care District Board meets, with final materials up five calendar days before the board’s regular meetings.

Alameda Unified General Counsel Danielle Houck said the Brown Act suspension doesn’t apply to school districts or community college districts.

“We will continue to seek reimbursement for mandates imposed by the Brown Act,” Houck wrote in response to a reporter’s e-mailed questions. She couldn’t say how much the district has requested, though she said the reimbursements “are several years behind.”

Alameda Unified typically releases agendas 72 hours prior to the start of regular meetings are required by law, though the district recently began posting draft agendas for those meetings much earlier. The district typically also posts staff reports and presentations with its meeting agendas – which aren’t included in the noticing requirement – though materials for open-session agenda items are sometimes not made public until they are presented to the school board.

“Our board policy does track the 72 hour requirement of the Brown Act, but we have always posted 96 hours in advance of regular meetings, or the Friday before a Tuesday meeting,” Houck said. “There are a handful of occasions when the materials aren’t ready at posting, but I believe these occasions are the rare exception rather than the rule.”

She said the district is hoping to have agendas posted six days before board meetings this year.

The state Legislative Analyst’s Office estimated in a February 2011 report that California spends about $23 million a year to fund the requirement, though local officials said they haven’t gotten any state funding to produce meeting agendas. In their report, the LAO listed examples of reimbursement claims that included a $78,044 claim from the City of Santa Barbara for 384 meeting agendas for 2005-06 that included a flat rate of $134 per meeting plus staff time of 30 minutes at $44.60 per hour for 41 meetings with long agendas and $12,852 for 74 meetings of the Mesa Consolidated Water District in 2008-09, half of which were billed at a flat rate of $155 per meeting and the rest of which included 33 minutes of staff time for each agenda at an hourly rate of $75.21.

The LAO said the suspension may only lift the state’s obligation to pay for certain mandates imposed by the Brown Act, though, and not necessarily locals’ obligation to provide adequate notice of their meetings and closed-door activities.

“Suspending the provisions regarding agenda posting and closed session disclosure could be interpreted as the Legislature making these provisions optional,” the report’s authors wrote. “In fact, Proposition 59 (enacted by the voters in 2004) could require local agencies to post agendas and disclose actions taken in closed sessions – even in the absence of the Open Meeting Act mandate.”

Separately, a state constitutional amendment proposed in 2011 by State Senator Leland Yee, D-San Francisco, would mandate advance notice of meetings and disclosure of action taken at those meetings, though that amendment has been held in suspense by state legislators and hasn’t made it to the ballot.

Meanwhile, a San Diego watchdog group is suing the state to invalidate the budget trailer language that suspended portions of the Brown Act. San Diegans for Open Government claims the suspension violates Proposition 59, which put Californians’ right to access government bodies’ meetings and government officials’ writings into the state constitution (the state Legislature’s records and meetings were exempted).

“In the grand scheme of things, the cost of posting agendas is basically zero,” said Ian Trowbridge, who heads the group, was quoted as saying in a press release announcing the suit. “Local government should not be allowed to use an un-reimbursed bill for relatively few dollars to justify doing the public’s business in secret.”