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 locally the plans are to continue serving the residents.
Murrieta City Clerk Kay Vinson and Wildomar City Manager Frank Oviedo both confirm they will keep their residents notified as they've always done.
“Nothing will change,” Oviedo said.
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.”
How the state came to the decision of suspending 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. In the case of the Brown Act mandates, the state was subsidizing nearly $100 million a year by some estimates.
So in an effort to cut expenditures, the state decided to suspend 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 watchdog Californians Aware—a group that tries to foster improvement of, compliance with and public understanding and use of, public forum law, which deals with what rights citizens have to know what is going in in government—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 reported 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.
Oviedo was not at his desk when Patch reached him late Friday, so he didn’t have Wildomar’s figures in front of him, but he acknowledged the city has filed.
Both Oviedo and Murrieta City Attorney Leslie Devaney said the issue was just now getting the attention of local jurisdictions and there is still sorting out to do. Senator Leland Yee (D-San Francisco) has introduced a Senate Constitutional Amendment (SCA 7) that would ask California voters if they want the transparency. 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 who is General Counsel, Californians Aware. "The real news is that 17 people in Sacramento are denying the public the chance to say 'Enough'."
In the meantime, the suspension could last through 2015, so it appears the public will need to demand transparency from its representatives if it wants to stay informed.
McAllister could only offer so much. "Regardless of what the state has done, I doubt we'll water down our reporting/noticing at all as it is the council's policy to be as transparent as possible.”