News

Tensions over PRA, Brown Act

(Ed’s Note: This story also appeared in California City News, www.californiacitynews.org, a content partner of Capitol Weekly.)

The question is simple: Should local governments pick up the tab for complying with California’s laws requiring local open meetings and access to public records?

But the answer is not so simple.

State and local governments are clearly divided. In the end, voters will decide when they confront a constitutional amendment next year on the ballot.

The amendment by Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco and co-authored by a number of other lawmakers, including the Senate leader and the chair of the Assembly Local Government Committee, requires the local governments to pay the costs of complying with the Brown Act and the Public Records Act.

In Sacramento, where lawmakers for years have grappled with strapped state budgets, the answer is easy: Yes. But locals say no, noting that they are forced to comply with a state law and that the state should reimburse them for the costs, about $20 million annually, according to the Commission on State Mandates.

Lawmakers in both houses unanimously approved the constitutional amendment, SCA 3, and put it on the June 2014 ballot. The amendment by Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco and co-authored by a number of other lawmakers, including the Senate leader and the chair of the Assembly Local Government Committee, requires the local governments to pay the costs of complying with the Brown Act and the Public Records Act.

“Local governments will have the constitutional obligation to provide both access to public records and notice of open meetings without expecting support from the General Fund,” Leno said. The goal, he added, is “to maintain transparency and maintain fiscal responsibility … It will require each government at each level to cover the costs of complying with the PRA and the Brown open meeting act.”

The constitutional amendment was prompted in part by recent corruption scandals in the city of Bell, in which some city officials secretly approved lavish pay and benefits for themselves.

Local governments aren’t so enthusiastic, noting that the Legislature itself is not covered by the Brown Act.

“In the constitution there is an existing different standard that applies to agencies other than the Legislature when it comes to these issues versus the Legislature,” said Dan Carrigg of the League of California Cities. “If this is good public policy, then why is the Legislature exempt?”

The constitutional amendment was prompted in part by recent corruption scandals in the city of Bell, in which some city officials secretly approved lavish pay and benefits for themselves. The amendment applies to California’s 58 counties, hundreds of cities, and hundreds of local boards, commissions and agencies, such as local water and school districts.

“Well, we want to make sure that all government agencies have oversight and the perfect example of corruption is the city of Bell, and if we didn’t get this passed, cities that are not run with ethics, would be celebrating that we didn’t do this,” he said.

Dan Logue

Assemblyman Dan Logue

The measure “makes crystal clear that local agencies must comply with those laws and pay the costs to do so, which is important both for our democratic process and the protection of state taxpayers,” Senate Leader Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, said in a written statement released by his office.

The amendment “removes any lingering doubt about local governments’ obligation to comply fully with the Public Records Act and Brown Act,” said Peter Scheer, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition, which advocates for public access. “SCA 3 hardwires the public’s ‘right to know’ to the state constitution.”

The sole Republican co-author of SCA 3, Assemblyman Dan Logue of Marysville, agreed.

“Well, we want to make sure that all government agencies have oversight and the perfect example of corruption is the city of Bell, and if we didn’t get this passed, cities that are not run with ethics, would be celebrating that we didn’t do this,” he said.

But the locals who actually will foot the bill have concerns.

Estimates vary dramatically, from the CSM’s $20 million a year to “tens of millions of dollars” from the Legislative Analyst’s Office. Leno said he used the “tens of millions of dollars” estimate during the debates this year on the amendment.

They said the issue isn’t access to government, which they support, but the state’s duty to cover the costs of laws that force compliance from the local governments. When the public – reporters, political interests, interested citizens, etc. – request documents from local bodies, the staff and materials costs for providing the information can be “significant,” according to an Appropriations Committee analysis. Estimates vary dramatically, from the CSM’s $20 million a year to “tens of millions of dollars” from the Legislative Analyst’s Office. Leno said he used the “tens of millions of dollars” estimate during the debates this year on the amendment.

According to Section 3, Article 1 of the California constitution, meetings of public bodies and writings of public officials must be made public. The Brown Act requires “open and public” meetings of the legislative bodies of local government and goes on to prohibit closed meetings, except for specialized exceptions, such as personnel and litigation issues, among others.

Locals note they are providing the information because they are required to by the state. Such “state mandates” typically are reimbursable by the state, they say.

“The concerns were really two-fold,” Carrigg said. “One, we obviously don’t have any problems complying with laws that exist related to the public records act and other transparency related laws

The measure “potentially exposes the local governments to a growing assortment of additional requirements which will impose costs on local agencies for which they will not be able to recover their cost,” Carrigg said.

“The concerns were really two-fold,” Carrigg said. “One, we obviously don’t have any problems complying with laws that exist related to the public records act and other transparency related laws … the League actually supported the original Brown Act when it was passed, so we have a long tradition of supporting those local government laws.”

That view didn’t resonate with some in the Legislature.

“I don’t see why they (local governments) should be reimbursed,” Logue said. “They have their own sovereignty on the local level and all we’re asking for is accountability, and I think that’s not asking too much. I mean, local governments, state governments, city governments, they have hundreds of millions of dollars, and I think that’s not asking too much to participate.”

Eds Note: Summer ParkerPerry is a Capitol Weekly intern from the UC Sacramento Center.

 


  • uniformer

    Louge is wrong. No longer do local governments have sovereignty. The state proved that when they took away the right to eliminate prevailing wage requirements from charter cities.

  • Education Fan

    No mention of the fact SCA would reduce the passage of school parcel taxes from 2/3 to 55%?

Support for Capitol Weekly is Provided by: