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Change to Meeting Law Gets a 2nd Look

May 23, 2003|Sue Fox | Times Staff Writer

Gov. Gray Davis signaled Thursday that he is reconsidering a plan to repeal a core section of California's open meeting law, just eight days after he suggested it in his proposed budget.

The idea, part of the governor's revised budget, would end the requirement that city councils, school boards and other local agencies post agendas notifying the public about upcoming meetings. Davis pitched the plan as a way to save money without doing much damage, because, as he said in his budget proposal, "any responsible public agency should perform [public notification] without being mandated to do so."

But the move ignited so much criticism that Davis has decided to give it a second look. Late Thursday, in a Sacramento office bombarded by inquiries from 1st Amendment advocates, the governor's press secretary said the administration planned to "review" the proposal.

"The governor has certainly read and heard everything that people have been saying. It was never his intention to restrict open meetings and open government," Davis spokesman Steven Maviglio said. "It was a financial decision."

If approved by the Legislature, the measure would save $9.3 million in a state budget punctured by a $38.2-billion hole. It would also -- in the view of many opponents -- sharply reduce the effect of the Ralph M. Brown Act, the state law that requires legislative bodies to meet publicly, openly and with adequate notice. The California First Amendment Coalition, California Newspaper Publishers Assn., Los Angeles Press Club and other 1st Amendment defenders objected to the proposed repeal of the agenda-posting rule.

"Whoever decided this was a good idea didn't look hard enough at it," said Tom Newton, general counsel for the California Newspaper Publishers Assn. "There's more people than they know who care about having a very strong, local open meetings law."

In Los Angeles, county Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky dashed off a resolution Tuesday opposing the governor's plan, which he branded as "a deal with the devil." A few blocks away at City Hall, Councilman Eric Garcetti offered a similar motion, declaring, "The small cost of Brown Act compliance has been repaid many times around the state ... as a result of the public's ability to bird-dog deliberative boards, commissions and councils."

Meanwhile in San Francisco, the state Supreme Court ruled Thursday that school districts are not entitled to state reimbursement for the costs of posting notices of public meetings.

Assembly Speaker Herb Wesson (D-Culver City) appointed a new special committee on state mandates to review the system, and the governor's office plans to discuss the issue in "an ongoing negotiation" with lawmakers in coming weeks, Maviglio said.

"In other words, they're looking for a diplomatic way out of the situation," said Karen Ocamb, head of the Los Angeles Sunshine Coalition, a group of journalism and civic organizations. "The governor made a mistake. He should admit that, withdraw his proposal and issue a very strong statement in favor of open government."

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