Cities now have the option of becoming a lot more secretive -- if they choose.
Last month, the state legislature suspended the Brown Act mandate that local jurisdictions -- cities, counties, school districts, water districts and special districts -- post meeting agendas for the public. The suspension also allows local jurisdictions 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.
"We won't stop doing what we're doing," Sierra Madre City Manager Elaine Aguilar told Patch Monday, noting the mandate change was not mentioned at a League of California Cities briefing she attended last week.
"I remember [previously] hearing the legislature was considering it," said Aguilar.
Currently, Sierra Madre City Council agendas are posted at and on the City's website.
As for reporting closed session happenings, Aguilar said the City will continue to do so at council meetings.
The League of California Cities is expected to release an official statement on the issue next week, but the organization’s Communications Director Eva Spiegel said for now the suggestion to cities is “stick with the status quo.
“The League has been very involved with the Brown Act,” she said. “We have always encouraged transparency.”
Any decision to suspend the posting of Sierra Madre City Council agendas and reporting of closed sessions ultimately falls to the city manager, but Sierra Madre City Councilman told Patch Monday, "I am adamant that any decision to suspend meeting notices should be made by the City Council."
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.
"I am opposed to suspending any provisions of the Brown Act regardless of whether or not we receive funding from the state," said Capoccia.
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 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 Friday.
According to Aguilar, Sierra Madre has never applied for reimbursement because Aguilar claimed the state would never actually get them the money.
"I wasn't aware that we received any funding to provide meeting notifications," said Capoccia. "I believe the cost to provide proper meeting notifications is minimal and is well worth the expense to ensure that the public is aware of what will be discussed at council and commission meetings."
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 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'."
In the meantime, the suspension could last through 2015, so it appears the public will need to demand transparency from its representatives if it wants to stay informed.
Do you think city councils should be required to post meeting agendas and report on closed sessions? What do you think of Sierra Madre's decision to continue these practices? Share your thoughts in the comments.