Editor’s note: Recently, elected boards throughout California were put on notice that Californians Aware will file suits to enforce open meeting laws that are routinely being violated. Your rights to open government are protected under the Ralph M. Brown Act. Below is a guide to what it requires—and how you as a member of the public can enforce those rights.
By E.A. Barrera
February 4, 2011-- The rules of procedure by which all elected boards conduct their meetings are spelled out in a 1953 statute signed by former U.S. Supreme Court Justice and California Governor Earl Warren. Called the Ralph M. Brown Act, it establishes rules for conducting public meetings - and under what specific circumstances a public agency may operate in secret. All political and public agencies in the state of California are subject to the Brown act, unless specifically exempt.
"Any board, commission, committee or other body of a local agency created by charter, ordinance, resolution or formal action of a legislative body is itself a legislative body," states the California Department of Justice (CDOJ). "This is the case regardless of whether the body is permanent or temporary, decision-making or advisory."
Even in circumstances where a member has been appointed to fill a seat, that seat is part of the public domain and subject to all the regulations placed on a California public official. The Brown Act requires that any and all members of a public body conduct their meetings and deliberations within the public's presence. Failure to do so is a misdemeanor crime, subject to criminal legal action, as well as civil law suits.
The term "meeting" is defined in the Brown Act as "any gathering of a majority of the members of a body to receive information, hear a proposal, discuss an issue or take any action on an issue under the subject matter jurisdiction of the body," states the CDOJ.
Three designations for determining meetings are described within the Brown Act: Regular meetings, Special Meetings, and Emergency meetings.
A Regular meeting is required to take place in a time and location convenient and open to the general public. The meeting must occur within the jurisdictional boundaries of a public agency. The agenda for a regular meeting must be posted with either the local media, or at a public location which is easily accessible to the general public. This agenda must appear 72 hours prior to the meeting and the public must be given the opportunity to comment on the subject matter of any meeting. The public can not be prohibited from criticizing the policies, procedures, or content of a meeting, but the political agency conducting the meeting does have a right to set a reasonable time limitation for each individual speaker or group.
In the event or necessity of Special meetings, members of the political body and the public must still be given a full 24 hour notification through "each local newspaper, radio and/or television station which has requested in writing notice of meetings," states the CDOJ. This means a publication which normally runs the agenda for a regularly scheduled meeting must be given notice of a special meeting 24 hours prior to that meeting taking place.
Under the Brown Act, in the case of Emergency meetings, notification time is reduced to one hour. All media outlets must be notified by telephone. If telephone services are not working, than the agency calling the meeting must report their actions immediately after the meeting. Emergency meetings are considered "very rare" and specifically defined by the Brown Act as meetings necessary due to "a crippling disaster, work stoppage, or other activity which severely impairs public health, safety or both," according to the CDOJ.
Under the Brown Act, there are circumstances when a political body or public agency may hold "closed meetings." These are meetings where the public or the media is barred from participation. The subject matter of these meetings usually involves legal or medical discussions, or involve real property negotiations between a party and the agency in question.
In the event of a closed session, the agency must still give 72 hours notice that a closed session meeting is to take place. The agency must also specifically identify the subject to be discussed and provide a brief description of the subject on agendas available to the general public. Under the Brown Act, any member of the public may request details of this closed meeting after the fact, by issuing a request in writing.
THE PUBLIC’S RIGHTS TO SPEAK AND PARTICIPATE:
When the Brown Act was adopted, the California legislature established a clear presumption that the public had a right to know the details and conversations of public meetings and public issues. This was considered a pre-eminent right of a working democracy. The right of any member of the general public to attend and testify at a meeting without having to first register for the meeting or provide personal information as a condition of attendance, was clearly established within the Brown Act.
Any and all types of questionnaires, sign-up sheets, or registration forms circulated at public agency meetings, must state that there is no requirement for completing these forms. A person may participate in any meeting without filling out any sort of documentation.
The public has a right to take notes, photograph, audiotape, videotape, and/or broadcast any public agency meeting, so long as doing so cannot be "reasonably" construed as a disruption of the proceedings.
The public has the right to testify on any subject within a political body or public agency's jurisdiction. The agency in question can only debate and vote on matters contained within that meeting's agenda, but the public has the right to request that an item within the agency's jurisdiction be placed on a future meeting's agenda.
The public is entitled to copies of agendas, videotaped and/or audio-taped proceedings, and any other sorts of documentation produced by any public agency within California. The only exemptions to the public's right to attend meetings and receive materials presented to public officials, is if the behavior of a member of the general public is deemed disruptive, or the material in question is specifically exempt from public view by California statute.
PENALTIES FOR VIOLATING THE BROWN ACT:
The Brown Act states that any member of the general public or the media who believes a violation of these open meeting regulations has or will occur, has the right to complain to the local district attorney. Legal action can be taken if an agency or individual members within an agency violate the right of the public to know the details and proceedings of their meetings.
Criminal misdemeanor penalties are provided to those individuals within a political or public agency who attend an undisclosed meeting and deprive the public of information they are entitled to hear. Even in cases where the votes taken or decisions reached were not final, participation in an undisclosed meeting can still trigger criminal proceedings if it is proven these actions influenced the final decision-making process.
View a complete guide to the Brown Act .