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California pays high price for localities to post meeting agendas

Some municipalities bill the state at much higher rates than their neighbors. Under Brown's tax measure, the state would no longer cover the costs of notifying the public about meetings.

August 17, 2012|By Chris Megerian, Los Angeles Times

SACRAMENTO — In this online age, the decades-old state requirement that local governments alert residents about what will be discussed in public meetings and when they will take place might be fulfilled with a few keystrokes.

At the Santa Clara Valley Water District, that function cost $9,152.26 per meeting.

The district said it racked up $384,395 in expenses for 42 meetings in the 2010-11 budget year and, like hundreds of other local governments, asked the state for reimbursement.

A June decision by lawmakers and the governor to stop localities from submitting such bills for the next year, thereby giving them license to temporarily stop complying with the rule, has generated a lot of buzz among good-government advocates. Lost in all the back and forth about the public's right to know is the high price some cities and counties are charging to prepare and post agendas publicly.

"The state's getting ripped off," said Peter Scheer, who advocates for government transparency at the San Rafael, Calif.-based First Amendment Coalition. "What is it going to cost to put [a meeting agenda] on your website? Or take a thumbtack and put it on the front door of City Hall?"

Lawmakers have repeatedly put off payments for public notices during California's budget crisis, and the state now owes local governments almost $97 million. A little-noticed item in Gov. Jerry Brown's tax proposal on the November ballot would shut off this spigot in the future.

Although guidelines on reimbursements are set by the state, there is little consistency to the accounting methods used by municipalities to calculate bills, and some are billing the state at much higher rates than their neighbors, according to a Times review of claims filed this year.

For example, it apparently costs more to process agendas at the city of Los Angeles than at the county of Los Angeles, according to the records. Each entity said it took employees 30 minutes to complete each item on each agenda for meetings held by council members or county supervisors. The city charged the state $95.42 an hour, nearly twice the county's rate of $53.94.

The city billed the state $336,067 for 1,182 meetings in the 2010-11 fiscal year. The county, which held 3,421 meetings, more than any other municipality or agency, billed $188,749. It had the lowest average per-meeting cost in the state, $55.17.

Shannon Hoppes, a manager at the city clerk's office, said the city charges a higher rate because the people reviewing the agendas have higher salaries.

The water district in Santa Clara had the highest average cost per meeting. One employee, a deputy clerk, put in nearly 800 hours on meeting agendas, sometimes at an overtime rate of $64 an hour.

Asked why others could bill the state for less, Marty Grimes, a spokesman for the district, said, "They may be eligible for more than they claimed." He said the district was following the state's rules.

Sometimes the state controller's office, which reviews the reimbursement claims, rejects certain expenses. That's what happened with Santa Clara County, which has routinely submitted annual bills in excess of $1 million, the records show.

In addition to reimbursements for its employees' work, the county wanted the state to cover the cost of maintaining an aging and expensive computer system. Last year, the controller's office said no and cut $4.7 million from the county's $5.6 million in billings over five years.

The county included the computer costs again in a new bill submitted in February that is awaiting review.

"We try to claim as much as we can to increase our revenues," said Alan Minato, a manager at the county's finance agency. "Every dollar for Santa Clara County counts these days."

Lawmakers passed the Brown Act in 1953 to ensure that government work was handled publicly. It was named for an assemblyman, Ralph Brown, who is not related to the governor.

The requirement to post agendas 72 hours before meetings was added in 1986, and a state commission later said local governments could bill the state for complying. Jim Ewert, general counsel for the California Newspaper Publishers Assn., said tying the requirement to state spending actually weakened the mandate because it could be suspended when funding wasn't available.

"Transparency really shouldn't be subject to shortfalls in the budget," he said. "That's probably the time when transparency is most needed."

If voters approve Brown's tax proposal, Proposition 30, local governments will no longer be able to pass these costs to the state. They will still be held to the public-notice requirements.

"The provision in Prop. 30 promotes transparency and good government by ensuring the public's business is conducted openly and transparently without requiring the state to pay for every agenda posted by every locality," said Dan Newman, a spokesman for the tax campaign.

Local governments will continue compiling and posting agendas whether or not money comes from the state, said Chris McKenzie, executive director of the League of California Cities. Some have their own rules that are even stricter than the state's.

"It's a fundamental part of democracy," he said.

chris.megerian@latimes.com

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