As of June this year, voters in California will get the chance to amend the state’s constitution. This amendment, if successful, will see local governments bearing the cost of making meetings and records open to the public. This important item will maintain government transparency and make sure information remains a matter of public record.
The public not only has the right to know what the government is doing but also the right to participate, which is why another major issue will be ensuring that local commissions and boards give the public a true chance to speak on agenda items up for vote. This issue will go before the California legislature this spring. The concern of open-government experts is that the public’s right to stand before local government is being diminished by rules that restrict their comments to meeting beginnings and ends, and by restrictive time limits.
In Orange County, public speaking issues have fueled controversy over the course of the last two years. Debates surround the public’s right to be heard before the Board of Supervisors and at meetings in Anaheim. The issue is expected to be of increased significance for this county’s residents.
Since 2005 Sacramento lawmakers have stopped putting funding into the state budget to reimburse local governments for their compliance with the Brown Act. This 61-year-old act, the Ralph M. Brown Act, mandates open meetings. Today, the balance the state owes has built up to around $111.5 million. The California Public Records Act, now 46 years old, has experienced similar treatment. The latest projections are that reimbursement estimates are at about $20 million for the year.
Back in 2010, Governor Jerry Brown removed the state reimbursement mandate from the budget. The implications were that Sacramento would not pay local governments for compliance with the Brown and Public Records Acts, and that these governments should decide whether to continue following open meeting law provisions. These provisions made public notice of meeting dates, times, and agenda items.
An outpouring of objection from open-government advocates, the general public, and news organizations saw this reversed this year. Failure to comply with the Public Records Act was seen as a dangerous precedent for California to set. Now, the public will get its chance to weigh in on the impending constitutional amendment.
Local governments have been encouraged by original Brown Act backers The League of California Cities to follow the Act’s regulations, regardless of reimbursement. The issue is that compliance does come at a price, especially in cases where there is abuse of the public records system. In order to comply, a full agenda must be created and publicly posted 72 hours before each meeting, and last-minute changes are banned unless in an emergency. The public must also be given a fair opportunity to speak at meetings. New board members much be trained in abiding by open-meeting law and announcement making.
What’s The Cost?
According to representatives for Orange County, about $90,000 is spent on staff time in order to comply with the Brown Act each year. Other counties are estimated to spend about $45,000 per year. If voters reject the Public Records Act Constitutional Amendment in June, local governments will be reimbursed for a large portion of these figures. Costs such as staff time for compiling records within 10 days of any request, requests for time extensions, sending notices to say record requests have been denied, and assisting the public in locating public records would be reimbursed.