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Bills Would Tighten Law on Open Meetings : Legislation: The governor is expected to sign final measure of a four-part package aimed at keeping elected officials from striking deals without public input. Additions to Brown Act would apply only to local agencies.

March 29, 1994|CARL INGRAM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SACRAMENTO — The Legislature has sent Gov. Pete Wilson the last of several bills requiring local elected officials to conduct their business more openly--not, for example, at out-of-town "retreats" or in small, private gatherings.

Wilson is expected to sign the so-called sunshine legislation quickly so that it will become law by Friday, the effective date of a three-bill package passed by the Legislature and signed by the governor last year.

Together the four bills represent one of the few substantial tightenings of the 40-year-old Ralph M. Brown Act anti-secrecy law, which requires local elected officials of public agencies and school boards to meet and make decisions in public.

Final legislative approval came Thursday when the Senate sent the last bill, by Sen. Quentin Kopp (I-San Francisco), to Wilson on a 37-0 vote. Earlier, the Assembly approved it 56-1.

Among the new restrictions: Local elected officials would no longer be allowed to meet in private just by ensuring that the group did not constitute a quorum. They also could not travel to a secluded spot out of their area, far from public view, to hold meetings.

Such abuses, which critics maintain violated the spirit if not the letter of the Brown Act, fueled a two-year effort by newspaper publishers, broadcasters and other journalists to toughen the law.

Complaints also have come from within public bodies. Two Pasadena City Council members said in August that four of their colleagues--a majority on the seven member council--met in an anteroom during a council break to hash out a compromise on an anti-smoking ordinance. The city attorney later ruled that the gathering was not a meeting.

In 1992, Los Angeles County Supervisor Gloria Molina said she was present repeatedly, over her objections, at closed-door sessions of the board that she believes violated the law. On one occasion, she said the board went into closed session to hear a county department chief lobby them on an issue.

But Molina did not object when she and her four colleagues, in a session that almost certainly would be illegal under the new law, met with Wilson in Sacramento last spring to discuss Wilson's proposal to shift property tax revenues from counties to schools. The county's top lawyer said the get-together was not a meeting under the law, only a discussion with five individuals and the governor.

In order to give city council members, county supervisors, school board trustees, other officials and their attorneys extra time to digest the changes, the new sunshine statutes were targeted to become law April 1--three months later than most 1994 laws.

For local officials who make reasonable efforts to keep the public informed of their activities, the new law is not expected to have a major impact, said Terry Franke, whose First Amendment Coalition helped push the overhaul through the Legislature.

"The styles that will be cramped will be those who have been secretive, jealous of information and who control the routing and access to information," Franke said. "Those folks are going to need to change their act."

The four-bill package by Kopp, a former San Francisco supervisor, Assemblyman John L. Burton (D-San Francisco) and Sen. Charles Calderon (D-Whittier) applies only to local governmental agencies and not to state entities or the Legislature.

Wilson, a former mayor of San Diego, vetoed a similar proposal in 1992 on the grounds that it would have increased costs. Last year, he signed a compromise version after it was rewritten to meet his objections.

The newest Brown Act changes were achieved during lengthy negotiations between representatives of the First Amendment Coalition and advocates for cities, counties, special districts and school boards. Key features include:

* Removing obstacles to prosecuting a Brown Act violation, a misdemeanor. Under the old law, prosecutors had the problem of proving that officials knew they were attending a meeting banned under the act. Under the new laws, ignorance of open meeting requirements no longer would be the "perfect defense" of accused officials, supporters of the bill said.

* Citizens would be given additional time to detect an alleged violation before formally demanding that a local governing board take action to correct the offense.

* Local government entities would have to hold meetings within their own jurisdictions, with limited exceptions. The restriction is intended to prohibit elected officials from traveling to distant "retreats" where, critics charge, public business can be discussed out of public view.

* Meetings of standing committees of less than a quorum of a legislative body such as a city council would be open and public. Critics have argued that some governing boards structure the membership of their policy-making committees to avoid open meeting requirements.

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