This is Sunshine Week, and I’m not talking about all that light that comes from the big orb in the sky. But Sunshine Week does stand for both the light and heat which a worthwhile law confers on us.
This sunshine comes from the Ralph M. Brown Act, which essentially says that publicly elected bodies must conduct their business in public, according to a set of rules that favor public participation. It allows for a few exceptions, but not many. The advantage to the public is that the act keeps elected officials and their advisors from pulling the wool over the public’s eyes. Violations are serious offenses, and can lead to fines and even jail.
Not only are the meetings themselves to be public, but what goes on in those meetings must be recorded and kept in official records. This includes discussions and the results of votes taken, if any.
Meetings must be noticed — which is to say advertised to the general public — at least 72 hours in advance. That is so members of the public can know what subjects will be taken up in the meeting and can decide whether to attend. An exception is that special meetings may be called with just 24 hours notice to media outlets which can inform the rest of the public. An emergency meeting may be called with one hour’s notice, but the situation must be dire.
The law allows secret meetings — or closed sessions, as they are called — for the governing body in question and its advisors to discuss personnel matters, public security, pending litigation against the agency in question, labor negotiations and real property negotiations.
Elected officials and their advisors are forever trying to expand the exemptions to the law, and fortunately for the public it has been heavy going for those officials in that regard.
Here is one journalist’s report card on how local agencies are doing:
- A-plus — Madera City Council and its Successor Agency for Redevelopment — These elected officials and their staff members do a good job of of following the Brown Act. There is no evidence of back-door deals or improper activities.
- A-plus — The Madera County Board of Education — This agency gets high marks both for the way it governs itself and helps the county’s school districts handle their own affairs.
- A-minus — The Madera County Board of Supervisors — The Brown Act is closely followed, but sometimes a supervisor or group of supervisors will let a meeting run a little wild, resulting in a scolding from the County Counsel, who attends all meetings.
- B — Madera Unified School District Board of Trustees. While efforts are made to keep the public part of meetings in order, the secret meetings reportedly can get rowdy. The District Attorney’s Office was called to investigate an accusation of a Brown Act violation. While no wrongdoing was found, it was reflective of at least some inappropriate activities.
Let’s keep an eye on any efforts to weaken the Brown Act. It protects our local and state rights.