Though cities around California now have the option of becoming a lot more secretive, Redondo Beach will not be one of them, according to City Attorney Mike Webb.
Last month, the state legislature suspended California's open government mandate, also known as Ralph M. Brown Act, that local jurisdictions—cities, counties, school districts, water districts and special districts—post meeting agendas for the public 72 hours in advance. The suspension also allows local jurisdictions, including Redondo, to forgo reporting to the public about actions taken during closed-session meetings.
How many California municipalities will choose to abandon the transparency mandates is unknown, but locally the plans are to continue serving the residents.
Webb confirmed that the city—including its various commissions—will continue to keep residents notified as it has always done.
"I think we should continue to follow the Brown Act," Webb said, emphasizing the city's commitment to open government.
At its meeting in Manhattan Beach on Friday, the League of California Cities voted to congratulate cities for continuing to adhere to the Brown Act despite the state's actions.
“The cities of California are committed to open and transparent government," League President and Mountain View Mayor Mike Kasperzak said in a news release after the board vote. "It’s our duty as elected officials to ensure that the people have access to the workings of their local government and business being conducted on their behalf. It’s enshrined in the California State Constitution that the people’s business be conducted in a way that is open."
The League also called on the Legislature to follow the suspended provisions of the Brown Act.
“League leaders also call on the Legislature to adopt these same important transparency provisions to post agendas 72 hours in advance of a public meeting and also provide at least 72 hours between the time a bill is in print and when it is voted on," League Executive Director Chris McKenzie said in a news release. "Transparency is the foundation for public confidence in every level of government—local, state and federal.”
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.
But according to watchdog Californians Aware—a group that tries to foster improvement of, compliance with and public understanding and use of, public forum law, which deals with what rights citizens have to know what is going in government—local jurisdictions 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 July 13.
According to Webb, Redondo Beach averages $27,000-$28,000 per year in reimbursement claims for its city council and nearly 10 commissions.
"Even in these tough budgetary times, the roughly $30,000 is worth it to continue open government," he said. "It's important for residents to know that no matter what the state does, we're going to continue complying (with the Brown Act) for the next three years, as we have done in the past."
Senator Leland Yee (D-San Francisco) has introduced a Senate Constitutional Amendment (SCA 7) that would ask California voters if they want the transparency. The amendment is stalled in the Assembly Appropriations 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 Terry Franke, a California media law expert who is General Counsel, Californians Aware. "The real news is that 17 people in Sacramento are denying the public the chance to say 'Enough.'"
On Sunday, Californians Aware launched a petition drive to encourage members of the Assembly Appropriations Committee to place the constitutional amendment on the statewide ballot.
"Even though the law might not hold public officials accountable for no longer posting agendas or providing adequate descriptions of items on them, angry voters would hold them accountable, and political exposure has always been a far more powerful motivator of Brown Act compliance than legal exposure," stated Californians Aware on its website.
The suspension is scheduled to last through the fiscal year 2014-2015.
Nicole Mooradian, Toni McAllister and Maggie Avants contributed to this report.