Politicians punch holes in California’s sunshine laws

By Dan Walters | CalMatters.org


California’s “sunshine laws,” such as the Brown Act, require public agencies to do their business publicly, but pending legislation would punch loopholes.

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has affected virtually every aspect of our lives, mostly in the negative, and one effect is disconnecting California’s public officials from their constituents.

Local and state agencies, including the Legislature, shifted meetings from in-person venues to on-line substitutes, having received permission from Gov. Gavin Newsom, in one of his many pandemic-related decrees, to ignore portions of California’s long-standing open meeting laws, such as the 1953 Ralph M. Brown Act.

In theory, digital governance is just as accessible and responsive as the physical version, but in reality it isn’t. Not only is the technology cumbersome and sometimes inoperable, but it assumes that everyone has access to computers and the internet, which is not true.

However, it appears that California’s elected officials like putting physical distance between themselves and those they serve with the power to more easily limit or even shut down public comment on the issues before them.

That’s why many local agencies are supporting legislation that would modify the Brown Act and extend their ability to meet remotely with little or no physical access to their sessions.

Their primary vehicle for that extension, Assembly Bill 1944 by Assemblyman Alex Lee, a San Jose Democrat, passed the Assembly but after receiving harsh criticism from media and civil rights groups, has seemingly stalled in a Senate committee.

“It would allow local bodies to conduct all public business from private locations — not identified, or accessible to the public, or even within the state — without need or justification,” the First Amendment Coalition declared.

However, a more limited version of institutionalizing electronic meetings, Assembly Bill 2449 by Assemblywoman Blanca Rubio, a West Covina Democrat, also has passed the Assembly and is close to reaching the Senate floor.

Another measure pending in the Senate, Assembly Bill 2647, would also amend the Brown Act to soften its requirement that written background materials for local government meetings be made available to the public on a timely basis. The bill, carried by Assemblyman Marc Levine, a San Rafael Democrat, was introduced to overturn a court ruling that posting materials on-line does not satisfy the law.

While local governments are busily trying to escape some provisions of the Brown Act, the Legislature has — somewhat sneakily — eased open meeting requirements of the Bagley-Keene Open Meeting Act, which was enacted in 1967 to extend the Brown Act’s philosophy to state agencies.

Assemblyman Bill Quirk, a Hayward Democrat, had introduced Assembly Bill 1733, to give state agencies wider authority to conduct meetings by teleconference, but the measure never moved past its first committee. Instead, a revised version of Quirk’s bill was folded into Senate Bill 189, one of the many budget trailer bills enacted and signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom late last month.

It was not only questionable policy but another example of misusing trailer bills to enact major policy changes that bypass the usual legislative processes, including public hearings.

These are important issues. Newsom and other Democratic politicians have been highly critical of how red states such as Florida and Texas conduct themselves but are clearly not above punching loopholes in the state’s time-honored sunshine laws.

When the Bagley-Keene Act was passed in 1967, it declared, “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.”


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