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New Brown Act Laws Puts Local Groups On the Spot

Aiming to save money, state lawmakers have stopped reimbursement for the Brown Act, which calls for meeting notices and closed-session reports to be offered to the public.

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The La Jolla Village Merchant Association (LJVMA), which manages funds from the Business Improvement District tax, said it will continue to post its agendas despite the state’s altered approach to the Brown Act, which aims to make government more open.

In June, California cities and counties were given the option of not posting meeting agendas and other reports to save money.

The state Legislature offered to suspend Brown Act mandates that local jurisdictions, such as cities and counties, post meeting agendas for the public, as the state will no longer reimburse the agencies for the costs.

The suspension also allows local boards and councils to forgo reporting to the public about actions taken during closed-session meetings, which generally focus on legal and personnel issues.

Phil Coller, president of the LJVMA, said the merchant association plans to continue its practice of posting agendas ahead of meetings, despite significant costs.

“We have a contract with the city that species what information we have to post publicly and we will continue to comply with our contractual obligations,” Coller said by email.

A copy of LJVMA meetings agendas are made available online before the scheduled monthly meetings. The minutes are also posted after the meetings.

Tony Crisafi, president of the La Jolla Community Planning Association, did not respond to several requests for information by Patch. It is unknown if the LJCPA will continue to post its agendas and unknown what the financial impact disseminating these documents has on this community group annually.

The LJCPA currently posts its agendas online. Agendas are posted at least 72 hours prior to a meeting.

Bob Whitney, a La Jolla resident and regular at LJCPA meetings, said “As I have been pointing out for the past several years, the action of the lawmakers will have little or no effect on the operation or transparency of our LJCPA because the members of the LJCPA did not understand or follow this part of the Brown Act in the first place.”

San Diego Councilmember Sherri Lightner, who represents La Jolla, University City, Carmel Valley and Rancho Peñasquitos, told Patch she is a firm believer that government should be as open and as transparent as possible.

“As a community volunteer, I relied on being able to have access to public records and meeting minutes. I disagree with any attempt to limit the public’s ability to understand and fully engage in the public process,” she said.

Lightner also serves as a chair of the Council’s Economic Development and Strategies Committee and is a member of the Council’s Natural Resources and Culture Committee.

Schools are also impacted by the changes to the Brown Act.

The San Diego Community College District said “while saving public funds is an important goal, some expenses are worth making when the public benefit is greater.”

“The Board is committed to open information, transparency and public accountability,” said SDCCD board President Rich Grosch, in an announcement released Thursday. “We will continue the practices that lead to these outcomes.”

School districts, according to Dannis Woliver Kelley, a law firm with offices in San Diego that specializes in education law, are not exempt from Brown Act provisions, despite the legislature's vote last month. 

According to a memo prepared by the firm, “obligations under the Brown Act remain fully in effect for school districts and colleges. School districts and colleges may also continue to file reimbursement claims for mandated costs of compliance.”

Former San Diego Councilwoman Donna Frye, an open-government advocate, recently told the San Diego Reader that efforts to water down the Brown Act would be “bad news for the public.”

Jim Ewert, general counsel for the California Newspaper Publishers Association, told the Riverside Press-Enterprise he is “significantly concerned” about the Brown Act maneuvers.

The League of California Cities is expected to release an official statement on the issue, but for now the group’s communications director Eva Spiegel said, “we have always encouraged transparency.”

The state decided to suspend the Brown Act mandates for one reason: Saving money in the face of its on-going budget crisis.

In California, mandates placed on local jurisdictions by Sacramento must be funded by the state. In the case of the Brown Act, the state was by some estimates subsidizing nearly $100 million a year of posting costs.

But public-agency watchdog Californians Aware alleges that some local jurisdictions learned how to milk the system.

For instance, according to Terry Francke, the city of Vista claimed $20,174 from the state for having posted notices for 109 meetings in 2005-06. “For example,” he noted, “the City Council’s Dec. 13, 2005 hearing included 35 agenda items; the city claimed $808.”

The San Francisco Chronicle summarized the Brown Act:

The Brown Act, named for the Modesto assemblyman who authored it, requires that at least 72 hours before a public meeting, local legislative bodies must post an agenda "containing a brief general description of each item of business to be transacted or discussed ... in a location that is freely accessible to members of the public and on the local agency's Internet Web site." The act also stipulates that all decisions made in closed session must be announced publicly.

State Sen. Leland Yee, D-San Francisco, has introduced Senate Constitutional Amendment (SCA 7) to ask California voters if they want the transparency. It is stalled in committee. In the meantime, the Brown Act suspension could last through 2015. 

Jennifer Vigil, Eric Yates, Maggie Avants, Toni McAllister and Ken Stone of Patch.com contributed to this report.

Ken Stone July 27, 2012 at 09:01 PM
Update: School boards and community college district governing boards have to obey the old Brown Act mandates because they are stipulated under the Education Code and other policies. So expect public school boards to post meeting notices 72 hours in advance, as in the past. More details: http://patch.com/A-w21j

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