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Davis Targets Open Meeting Law Cost

In his revised budget, he proposes saving $9million by no longer reimbursing local governments for posting public agendas.

May 20, 2003|Sue Fox | Times Staff Writer

Gov. Gray Davis has proposed repealing a key portion of California's open meeting law, a money-saving move that would scrap the state requirement that city councils, county boards of supervisors, school districts and other local bodies inform the public about upcoming meetings.

In a little-noticed provision buried on page 82 of the governor's revised budget proposal, released last week, Davis said the state requirement that local entities post agendas listing meeting times, locations and items to be considered "result[s] in additional general fund costs without producing a significant benefit to the state."

Any responsible public agency, he said, should perform such public notification without being ordered to do so.

But 1st Amendment advocates said that the change, if approved, would gut the 50-year-old Ralph M. Brown Act, a cornerstone of open government that compels legislative bodies to meet publicly and with adequate notice. If city councils and other entities do not have to post agendas, they said, government leaders will be free to make important decisions without public input or scrutiny.

"It would cut the heart out of the Brown Act," said Tom Newton, general counsel of the California Newspaper Publishers Assn. "If you don't have a requirement that agendas be posted ... even with the best intentions, [local leaders] will be taking surprise actions all the time."

The measure would do little to close California's budget gap, which is estimated by Davis at $38.2 billion over the next 14 months. In 2001-02, the state reimbursed local agencies $9.3 million for costs associated with posting agendas, said Anita Gore, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Finance. The governor's office referred repeated press inquiries about the proposal to Gore.

"Because it is good government, because this is something that local entities will be doing anyway, because it's the right thing to do, we anticipate that this [agenda posting] will continue to be done," she said. "The state is not in a position to pay for things that are local government obligations.... There are some people who might say, 'It's only $9 million.' Well, where else do you get the $9 million? Do you get it from education? Health services? The elderly? Disabled children?"

To get out of paying the bill, the state would have to drop the mandate, the governor's office said. Davis also has proposed suspending 33 other mandates, including animal adoption programs and law enforcement training to prevent sexual harassment and elder abuse, which would save California $32.9 million in the coming year.

Several elected officials said Monday that most cities and counties probably would continue posting notices about upcoming meetings even if they had to pick up the tab.

"We have a very active community," said Jane Brunner, an Oakland city councilwoman. "If you don't give people enough time to organize to get people down to City Hall, you're making decisions in a vacuum."

The Brown Act requires local entities to post agendas at least 72 hours before regularly scheduled meetings and 24 hours before special meetings. Often such notices are tacked to bulletin boards, but as a courtesy many agencies print and distribute hundreds of copies to news organizations, private citizens, unions, lobbyists and anyone else who requests them.

In this electronic age, local governments are increasingly posting agendas online, although they are still required to post at least one hard copy in a public place.

Though they are generally packed with dry legalese, the agendas tip people off to hot issues in their area. They set phones abuzz and e-mail messages rocketing, prompting activists to scrawl protest signs, organize car pools and even rent buses for the trip to make sure their voices are heard.

The resulting debates are often colorful and impassioned. In Los Angeles, the City Council got an earful from outraged residents as it debated the proper police response to burglar alarms. In the Central Valley, concerned parents from the Modesto school district trooped to Board of Education meetings to protest a steamy novel being taught in local high schools.

And in Santa Clarita, environmentalists routinely comb city and county agendas looking for items on Newhall Ranch, a massive 21,000-home project planned along the Santa Clara River, or other proposed developments.

"It's one of the few tools we have," said Barbara Wampole, vice chairwoman of Friends of the Santa Clara River. "Even now, we can see how manipulating the agendas can make it hard for the public to participate."

The Brown Act did not mandate that agendas be posted until 1986, after Los Angeles City Council members gave themselves a pay raise without airing the matter publicly. But under state law, California must provide the money to pay for its so-called state mandates, making them particularly vulnerable during budget crises.

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