Lynne Plambeck | The Brown Act in the Time of a Pandemic

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The Brown Act, California’s venerable open meeting law, was established in 1953 after a newspaper reporter wrote a series of stories on backroom secret meetings in local jurisdictions. 

This is the law that requires public agency agendas to be posted and available to the public, with clearly identified agenda items and the right to speak on each agenda item as well as requiring a time for general non-agenda public items. And it forbids secret backroom meetings of a majority of the public agency board members.

The act has changed over the years to address various issues, including accommodating the electronic age and addressing new abuses as they have presented themselves over the years. 

But one section that has not changed is the introduction to the act. This preamble clearly states the intent of this law which, like our Constitution and the Bill of Rights, makes it clear that the author’s intent is government by and for the people:

“In enacting this chapter, the Legislature finds and declares that the public commissions, boards and councils and the other public agencies in this state exist to aid in the conduct of the people’s business. It is the intent of the law that their actions be taken openly and that their deliberations be conducted openly. The people of this state do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies which serve them. The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know. The people insist on remaining informed so that they may retain control over the instruments they have created.”

As the COVID-19 virus swept the country and it became clear that Safer at Home rules were needed to slow down the spread, Gov. Gavin Newsom issued two executive orders suspending certain portions of the Brown Act. On March 12 and with additional clarification on March 17, he suspended the portion of the act that required public boards to meet in person in their jurisdiction and have a physical location where the public could come to address them, and ordered that they instead be permitted to use telephonic or electronic means to conduct their meetings. 

He did not suspend other portions of the act and urged jurisdictions to work to ensure the transparency of their agencies as required by the act.

While the startup was a little rough, with many public meetings canceled until agencies figured out a process for using Zoom and telephonic access to their meetings, along with several initial Brown Act violations by the L.A. County Board of Supervisors (https://signalscv.com/2020/04/county-reviewing-brown-act-complaint-from-scope/) and one by our Santa Clarita City Council where the public was not allowed to address them on important items (https://signalscv.com/2020/04/city-disputes-brown-act-complaint-about-public-comment/), local agencies generally got the hang of conducting electronic meetings with public access quickly and instituted measures to ensure that all other Brown Act requirements were followed.

Agendas with Zoom or GoToMeeting and telephonic access information were posted online and mailed as required. A means of muting and unmuting public speakers so that they could speak during public participation and on each agenda item no matter how they accessed the meeting were developed and put into process. 

That can’t be said for our county Board of Supervisors. Their first electronic meeting included several public hearings on contracts, brush clearance orders, etc., affecting the public, but no means of accommodating the public at an actual “public hearing” was provided. 

After several complaints and adverse news articles, the supervisors have now established a means to have the public heard during the public hearing portion of its meeting at least. 

We are glad that has occurred, but it does not remedy the prior, rather Orwellian “public” hearings, conducted without the ability for the public to comment during the hearing. 

These hearings should have been held over until the public could be provided the means to address the board. In all fairness, they should be re-agendized and real public hearings conducted.

The county board still has a way to go. It needs to develop a means for the public to comment on each agenda item at the time it is being heard, not require speakers to address the board just at the beginning of the meeting. The current process does not comply with the Brown Act.

County representatives have complained that they get hundreds of public comments at each meeting and cannot accommodate so many. Then perhaps they need smaller agendas or should return to the past practice of two meetings a week, or convene a committee to address this issue.  

It is time that board follows the open meeting rules as required by law, and stop making excuses.

Lynne Plambeck is president of Santa Clarita Organization for Planning and the Environment.

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