Ramona officials say they won’t change longstanding policies of public transparency in the wake of softened Brown Act rules, calling the act "imperative" and "critical."
In June, California cities and counties were given the option of becoming more secretive.
The state Legislature suspended Brown Act mandates that local jurisdictions—cities, counties, school districts, water districts and special districts—post meeting agendas for the public. The suspension also allows local boards and councils to forgo reporting to the public about actions taken during closed-session meetings.
The number of California municipalities choosing to abandon the transparency mandates is unknown.
But Ramona plans to continue its practice of posting agendas ahead of meetings and announcing the results of closed sessions.
"It is imperative we continue to embrace open and transparent communications," Ramona School Board President Dan Lopez said in an email to Patch. "Continuing to follow the Brown Act as it is written is the best way to approach this situation."
Ramona Municipal Water District (RMWD) General Manager David Barnum said that the water district will continue to post its meetings and agenda as public information, as it's "critical," but things may change.
"Eventually the RMWD Board of Directors and the District’s Legal Counsel may choose to revisit the issue, but for now nothing will change at the Ramona Municipal Water District," Barnum said in an email to Patch. "An important priority for RMWD is communication and we are always looking for ways to improve the way we provide information to the residents and business owners of Ramona."
Jim Ewert, general counsel for the California Newspaper Publishers Association, told the Riverside Press-Enterprise he is “significantly concerned” about the suspension.
Citizens have no legal recourse, if some officials “see it in their best interest to cut a corner here or there,” Ewert was quoted as saying last week.
The League of California Cities is expected to release an official statement on the issue soon, but the group’s communications director Eva Spiegel said for now the suggestion to cities is “stick with the status quo.”
“The League has been very involved with the Brown Act,” she said. “We have always encouraged transparency.”
How the state came to the decision of suspending the Brown Act mandates boiled down to one thing: money.
In California, mandates placed on local jurisdictions by Sacramento must be funded by the state. In the case of the Brown Act mandates, the state was subsidizing nearly $100 million a year by some estimates.
So in an effort to cut expenditures, the state decided to suspend the mandates.
Costs for complying with the Brown Act for the school board and water board weren't readily available, but Barnum said that it was "safe to say that compliance with the Brown Act cost the rate payers of the Ramona Municipal Water District tens of thousands of dollars each year."
According to public-agency watchdog Californians Aware, local jurisdictions have learned how to milk the system.
They “could get a windfall of cash for doing something they had always done: preparing and posting meeting agendas for their governing and other bodies as mandated by Brown Act amendments passed in 1986—but as, in fact, routinely done anyway since time immemorial to satisfy practical and political expectations,” the nonprofit reported Friday.
In fact, according to Terry Francke of Californians Aware, the city of Vista claimed $20,174 reimbursement from the state for having posted notices for 109 meetings in 2005-06.
“The city claimed the flat rate for 90 shorter agendas,” Francke said of Vista. “The city claimed 30 minutes of staff time (at a $46.17 hourly rate) to prepare each item on the other agendas. For example, the city council’s Dec. 13, 2005, hearing included 35 agenda items; the city claimed $808.”
The San Francisco Chronicle summarized the history of the Brown Act:
The Brown Act, named for the Modesto assemblyman who authored it, requires that at least 72 hours before a public meeting, local legislative bodies must post an agenda "containing a brief general description of each item of business to be transacted or discussed ... in a location that is freely accessible to members of the public and on the local agency's Internet Web site." The act also stipulates that all decisions made in closed session must be announced publicly.
Murrieta City Attorney Leslie Devaney said the issue was just now getting the attention of local jurisdictions and some sorting out was left to do.
State Sen. Leland Yee, D-San Francisco, has introduced Senate Constitutional Amendment (SCA 7) that would ask California voters if they want the transparency. The amendment is stalled in committee.
“To anyone who's been watching this issue for a while, the real news is not that the Brown Act can be so dependent on the state budget,” said Francke, the California media law expert and general counsel for what it known as CalAware. “The real news is that 17 people in Sacramento are denying the public the chance to say ‘Enough.’ ”
In the meantime, the suspension could last through 2015, so it appears the public will need to demand transparency from its representatives if it wants to stay informed, Francke said.
McAllister of Murrieta could only offer so much.
“Regardless of what the state has done,” he said, “I doubt we'’ll water down our reporting/noticing at all as it is the council’s policy to be as transparent as possible.”
Toni McAllister and Maggie Avants of Patch.com contributed to this report.