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Changes in Open-Meeting Regulations Worry Some Officials

January 18, 1987|KAREN ROEBUCK | Times Staff Writer

Some South Bay officials expect the business of government to be slowed by changes in state law that are aimed at keeping government action open to public scrutiny and discussion, and they complain that the delays will frustrate residents.

No major problems have arisen since the amendments to the state's open meeting act took effect Jan. 1, however, and some officials say that the amendments will increase the credibility of local governments.

The changes in the state's open-meeting law, the Brown Act, prohibit city councils, school boards and their commissions, committees and agencies from acting on matters not on their agendas, except in an emergency such as a work stoppage or natural disaster or when two-thirds of the members agree that the need for the action arose after the agenda was posted.

Local governments now must post agendas 72 hours before a meeting in a location accessible to the public at all times. Previously, agendas only had to be available to the public in the city clerk's office.

Under the new amendments, the agenda must briefly describe each item and include a period during the meeting for the public to speak, something most South Bay agencies already have been doing.

But because governments cannot take action on items not listed on the agenda, some officials complain that City Council members and other officials will not be able to immediately correct problems or complaints that people may raise at meetings. Instead, the officials will have to place the item on a future agenda.

"I don't think it will affect government so much as it will affect the perception of citizens that government doesn't respond to them. . . . That's a side effect I don't think anyone thought about," said Hermosa Beach City Atty. James P. Lough, who also serves on a committee of the California League of Cities that addresses Brown Act issues.

Rolling Hills City Manager Terrence L. Belanger doesn't agree. "By and large, I fail to see that as a significant problem," he said. Residents should make sure that city departments are aware of any issues they want addressed in time to be placed on the agenda, he said.

Carson City Clerk Helen Kawagoe said some problems cannot be foreseen. "John Q. Public may have an urgency item and now we can't even address it," she said.

"You just never know what's going to come up in the 72 hours before. It could come from the public or it could come from staff--you don't know that. But the act does provide for hardships."

Other officials expect the public to be pleased with the changes. Redondo Beach City Atty. Gordon Phillips said, "I think what will happen is the public will have greater confidence in city government."

Since the council will not be allowed to act on matters not on the agenda, he said, it should eliminate the public's perception that the council will "take action on things late at night in their absence."

A violation of the Brown Act is a misdemeanor, punishable by a fine up to $1,000 and six months in jail. Previously, if the Brown Act was violated, the government body's action stood, but under the revised law the courts can invalidate such an action.

The amendments require, however, that a person objecting to an action taken in violation of the act ask the government body to reverse its action or retake the action in accordance with the law before he goes to court.

Torrance City Manager LeRoy Jackson said the amendments "will add to the bureucratic slowness that is incumbent in government . . . and, in that way, I'm not sure it's a good thing."

Gardena City Manager Ken Landau said he does not expect significant changes because his city has been operating under procedures similar to the Brown Act revisions. Even before Jan. 1, the City Council agenda was printed 72 hours before a meeting, he said. "It's very, very rare that something comes up from the council bench that's not on the agenda," he added. Nevertheless, he is not pleased with the requirements. "I think it's a bad law," he said. "I think it just puts more government red tape in the way."

Palos Verdes Estates City Manager Gordon Siebert agreed with Landau's assessment. "I typically resent state or federal intrusion in what I consider a local matter or action," he said.

The new legislation was largely in reaction to a controversial pay raise Los Angeles city councilmen voted themselves in 1985 without discussion or public notice. It was referred to publicly only as Item 53. (A Superior Court overturned the raise because it was more than was allowed by the City Charter.)

Schools Post Agenda

The amendments are "sort of an adverse reaction to something that happened in another city," said Hawthorne City Manager R. Kenneth Jue. "So far, there's been no impact, but, in a way, it slows down government a little more in case something is forgotten."

The changes will have little effect on school boards in the South Bay, which generally have followed meeting policies that match or exceed the new requirements.

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