Cities now have the option of becoming a lot more secretive — if they choose.
Last month, the state legislature suspended the Brown Act mandate that local jurisdictions — cities, counties, school districts, water districts and special districts — post meeting agendas for the public. The suspension also allows local jurisdictions to forgo reporting to the public about actions taken during closed-session meetings.
How many California municipalities will choose to abandon the transparency mandates is unknown. But in Pacific Palisades, the community council plans to continue public notice of agendas.
On Monday, Pacific Palisades Community Council President Barbara Kohn said the council will continue to post and notify the public of its meetings on its Web site. She noted that Pacific Palisades, like neighboring Brentwood, are the oldest forms of jurisdictional local government in Los Angeles and are not certified as a neighborhood council.
"That unit is an arm of the city and cannot appeal city decisions," she said of neighborhood councils. "We’re autonomous. We could choose to appeal to the city. We’re part of the neighborhood council concept."
Additonally, Kohn could not recall whether the council ever held closed door or executive session meetings.
The League of California Cities is expected to release an official statement on the issue next week, but the organization’s communications director, Eva Spiegel, said for now the suggestion to cities is “stick with the status quo."
"The League has been very involved with the Brown Act," she said. "We have always encouraged transparency."
The decision to suspend the Brown Act mandates boiled down to one thing: money. In California, mandates placed on local jurisdictions by Sacramento must be funded by the state. The state spent nearly $100 million a year for Brown Act mandates by some estimates.
In an effort to cut expenditures, the state suspended the mandates.
Murrieta City Councilman Doug McAllister isn't happy with the suspension, calling it "way beyond the pale."
"By pulling the requirement ... they … avoid the unfunded mandate argument knowing that local government will still notice as always. Just another budget scheme from Sacramento on the backs of local government," he said.
But according to the watchdog group Californians Aware, which advocates for the public's right to know about government actions, local jurisdictions learned how to milk the system.
They "could get a windfall of cash for doing something they had always done: preparing and posting meeting agendas for their governing and other bodies as mandated by Brown Act amendments passed in 1986 — but as, in fact, routinely done anyway since time immemorial to satisfy practical and political expectations," the nonprofit stated Friday.
According to Vinson, Murrieta did not file a reimbursement claim with the state for fiscal year 2011, but historically it has. In fiscal year 2010, for example, the city's claim reached $24,418, which was not nearly as high as fiscal year 2006 when it reached $36,425.
Murrieta City Attorney Leslie Devaney said the issue is just now getting the attention of local jurisdictions and there is still sorting out to do.
State Sen. Leland Yee (D-San Francisco) has introduced a Senate Constitutional Amendment (SCA 7) that would ask California voters if they want the transparency of public notice. The amendment is stalled in committee.
"To anyone who's been watching this issue for a while, the real news is not that the Brown Act can be so dependent on the state budget," said Terry Franke, a California media law expert and Californians Aware general counsel. "The real news is that 17 people in Sacramento are denying the public the chance to say 'Enough'."
In the meantime, the mandate suspension could last through 2015.
- Pacific Palisades Editor Matthew Sanderson contributed to this report.