EDITORIAL: DON’T LET GOVERNMENT GROUPS HIDE THEIR AGENDAS

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Take these steps to restore Brown Act protections at state and local levels

By Miriam Raftery, Editor, East County Magazine

July 18, 2012 (San Diego’s East County) – Criticism is mounting over the state’s suspension of Brown Act protections, which have long required local government boards to provide at least 72 hours public notice of meeting agendas.

After some agencies submitted inflated bills to the state for reimbursement of notification costs, the Legislature recklessly suspended public notice requirements to save money--giving public agencies a license to hide their agendas.

ECM has invoked the Brown Act to force local boards to postpone meetings and reverse actions after they failed to provide notice required by the Brown Act. Any individual or media outlet that has requested to be notified of a board’s meetings has a right to do the same.

What’s being done to restore open government protections—and how can you help?

Californians Aware (CALAWARE) urges voters to contact Assembly Speaker John Perez and members of the Assembly Appropriations Committee to urge immediate passage of SCA 7, a constitutional amendment that would appear on a statewide ballot and require all public bodies to provide public notice of meetings and to disclose actions taken.

The bill passed the Senate, but has been held up in the Committee due to “not policy or even fiscal prudence, but politics,” according to CALAWARE, a nonprofit organization dedicated to open government.

You can contact Speaker Perez at (213)620-4646 and (916)319-2046. For a list of other committee members and their contacts, see http://calaware.wordpress.com/2012/07/13/brown-act-suspended-no-but-comm....

San Diegans for Open Government, meanwhile, has announced plans to file a lawsuit against the state. The government watchdog group claims the suspension violates the state Constitution under Proposiotion 59.

“We citizens cannot sit by while local politicians use Sacramento’s inability to budget prudently as a license to conduct the people’s business behind closed doors,” said Ian Trowbridge, Chairman. He estimated that the cost of posting agendas “is basically zero.”

Some local officials are offering assurances that they have no plans to change their notification procedures. La Mesa’s City Manager Dave Witt told ECM, “We don’t plan on making any changes.” He added that the cost of providing notification to the public of meeting agendas is “not significant.”

Similarly, a staffer for El Cajon City Attorney Morgan Foley told ECM , “The City of El Cajon has no intention to take advantage of the changes as allowed under AB 1464.”

Santee City Manager Keith Till has also assured that Santee City Council plans to continue posting its agenda on the city’s website the Friday prior to its meetings, Santee Patch reported. Till told Patch that Santee spends about $7,500 a year to prepare and publish agendas and other meeting notices.

Jennifer Stone, a spokesperson for Dianne Jacob, told ECM that “Supervisor Jacob has received assurances from County staff that nothing will change.” Asked if that applies to County planning groups as well as Supervisors, she reiterated that the County plans “no changes whatsoever.”

Councilmember Marti Emerald has announced plans to introduce an emergency resolution on July 24 asking the San Diego City Council to pass a Brown Act compliance resolution as part of a new open-government Sunshine Ordinance expected to come before Council this fall. It would reaffirm the City’s commitment to maintain strict compliance with all aspects of the Brown Act.

“Our open meeting laws are vital to the public’s trust in government and access to government information,” Emerald said.

While some local councils have announced plans to continue providing notice of meetings formerly required by the Brown Act, others remain silent. Whether any local school, water, fire or planning boards will take advantage of the change to move actions behind closed doors remains to be seen. That prospect, however, has some community members worried.

“Curse them in Sacramento!!!” one irate reader exclaimed in an e-mail to ECM, voicing concern that her local water district board might be eager to hide its actions from the public.

East County Magazine recommends that voters contact local boards and commissions to ask that they pass a resolution pledging to comply with the Brown Act notification requirements, despite the state’s suspension.

While it’s a positive sign that many local boards are pledging to ignore the suspension and continue to notify voters of upcoming actions, those boards that are most in need of sunshine may be the ones most apt to hide actions behind closed doors and opt not to inform the public.

We join with government watchdog groups and major news outlets to denounce the Legislature's unwise action, which puts our democracy at risk.

East County Magazine agrees wholeheartedly with this pithy reaction to the state’s rash action published in a U-T San Diego editorial: “Many adjectives come to mind. Scant few are printable.”