The California open meetings law has butted heads with a computer conferencing system in Santa Monica, and the law has won.
Santa Monica City Atty. Robert M. Myers has ordered that the conferencing program, accessible only to members of the school board and a citizens advisory committee, be shut down because it violated the Brown Act. The act requires that governmental bodies meet, discuss and decide their business in public.
A "closed conference only available to a select body" was, in effect, "an ongoing dialogue process that violated the Brown Act," Myers said last week. "It was set up by a body subject to the Brown Act to discuss issues that that body was established to (decide). That indicated they were, in effect, having a meeting process."
The conference system was set up in March on the city's Public Electronic Network for use by the Santa Monica High School Study Committee, some other citizens on a subcommittee task force and members of the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District board. The committee was appointed by the board last fall to examine the curriculum, student population and other aspects of the school.
School board President Patricia Hoffman said this week that the district was abiding by Myers' order. She said the idea for the closed conference came during a study committee meeting.
"It sounded like a good idea," she said, "just to facilitate communication." She said she did not realize that the committee might be subject to the 1953 Brown Act.
"It started as a benign idea," she said. "I thought of it in terms of a rough draft--when you're thinking things, having an avenue of communication."
Sharon Mayell, manager of the Public Electronic Network, set up the conference system. She said this week that she, too, was unaware that it might violate the law. "It was rarely used," she added. "There wasn't that much discussion going on."
But a few citizens complained to Myers, and a member of the City Charter Review Commission asked for a similar closed conference.
Modern technology is stretching the scope of the open meetings law, Myers said. "The Brown Act can be violated by a telephone conference call, a normal written memo exchanged by board members, and may or may not be violated by a board using electronic mail," he said.
But, he added, "it's not the medium that violates the Brown Act, it's the message that's sent."
The PEN system has a few other closed conferences--for Olympic Continuation High School, for a Roosevelt School class, for the district teachers and for the Santa Monica Bar Assn.--but none of these are policy-making government bodies.
The system has hundreds of open conferences that invite users to discuss topics such as public art, rent control, homelessness, leisure activities and Santa Monica High School. Other services include electronic mail, a bulletin board of city services and public meetings and agendas, and a form-filling program, in which people can submit consumer complaints, petty-theft police reports and job applications.
The two-year-old network has 3,500 users and can be accessed from any computer terminal equipped with a telephone modem. The city has public terminals at libraries and at City Hall.