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Editorial

What's it cost for government to tell us what it's up to?

California should stop paying local governments to post meeting agendas. But that doesn't mean the full agendas shouldn't be posted.

August 23, 2012
  • Because of the state's budget crisis, Sacramento has suspended reimbursements for posting agendas, and under Gov. Jerry Brown's tax measure, Proposition 30, the state would permanently end such payments.
Because of the state's budget crisis, Sacramento has suspended reimbursements… (Lezlie Sterling / Sacramento…)

Some of government's responsibilities are so basic — posting meeting agendas, for example — that they're simply presumed. The nature of the task may change over time. Once, citizens wanting to know what their city, county or school board was up to could expect little more than that meeting notices be posted on the courthouse door or published in the local gazette. Today, given larger populations, the growing complexity of issues and innovations in technology, people correctly insist that the full agendas of elected decision-making bodies be posted early, both physically and electronically, and that they provide adequate notice of the issues to be taken up. Democracy, as it is exercised in modern California, requires it.

Writing and posting agendas may not be free — there is a cost to labor, after all — but it's difficult to believe that the task is as expensive as the bills that local governments have been sending to the state seem to reflect. Last week, The Times reported that the state owes cities, counties, school districts, water boards and other local governments $97 million to reimburse them for complying with notice requirements. The bills vary widely; the city of Los Angeles charges $95.42 an hour, for example, while the county charges $53.94.

Because of the state's budget crisis, Sacramento has suspended reimbursements for posting agendas, and under Gov. Jerry Brown's tax measure, Proposition 30, the state would permanently end such payments. It should — whether the measure passes or not.

The problem is that suspending the payments suspends the agenda posting requirement, because it's a creature of state law, and state mandates must be accompanied by state funding.

Sending money along with mandates makes sense when the state hands off huge burdens to local governments, such as supervising nonviolent felons. But keeping citizens informed of their governments' actions is so fundamental that no municipality or district has any business operating if it can't meet that obligation on its own time and within its own budget.

Especially today. Agendas may be longer and more complex than ever, but once they're written and packaged for the elected officials — a task their staffs have to complete anyway — posting them for the public should take little more than the push of a button.

To their credit, most local governments continue to post, timely and fully. But with the reimbursements held up, the mandate is lifted, and local politicians may be tempted to cut corners and keep some of their decisions to themselves. California law should make clear that they don't have that option.

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