Open Meeting Rules Optional?

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An little noticed item in Governor Schwarzenegger's revised budget is a great example of how efforts to craft a balanced state spending plan have truly become equivalent to searching your couch for spare change.

The proposal: stop requiring local governments to notify the public about what they're doing and what issues they are discussing, thus suspending the state's obligation to pay for the cost of all that paperwork.

The issue was the subject of a short but somewhat surreal discussion in a Senate budget subcommittee on Wednesday. And here's why this is a fiscal issue: because the state, through laws enacted over the years, mandates that local officials post meeting agendas, provide copies of documents, and more.

The law says when the state mandates something to the locals, then the state must also reimburse the locals.

The tasks performed by cities, counties, community colleges, and more may sound like ones that are required under California's landmark open government law, known as the Brown Act. But in fact, says a quick FAQ on this proposal from the Legislative Analyst's Office, the 1953 law focuses on the public's access to the actual meetings... not the public's access to relevant documents related to those meetings of elected officials.

In testimony Wednesday, LAO analyst Marianne O'Malley told senators that the costs of reimbursing local governments for all of the staff time to prepare agendas, make copies, etc. now runs as much as $20 million a year.

Setting aside one's desire for open and transparent government, you might say $20 million is a lot of money. But here's the catch: the actual amount of unpaid bills that are due in 2010-11 is much less: $362,000.

The Schwarzenegger administration's remedy -- simply suspend the mandate -- does seem to beg the question: would local officials just stop providing documents to the public about what they're doing?

O'Malley said the LAO's recommendation is to delete the funding, but tell local governments that they can't just turn off their Xerox machines, thanks to 2004's Proposition 59. That constitutional amendment guarantees public access to the "writings of public officials." And so the LAO says the Legislature should tell the locals that even without the mandate, they have to comply with Prop 59. In the words of analyst O'Malley: either keep disseminating info without being paid back or do "something else of similar magnitude."

In other words: don't come to us to subsidize transparency in government, but don't expect you can just start blocking the public's access to documents.

The discussion... about what would seem to be a fundamental right of the public... seemed to leave everyone a bit bewildered, but resigned to accepting a plan that sounds a little bit like the honor system, all in the name of saving a buck.

"We're putting faith in local government to do the right thing," said subcommittee chair Sen. Mark DeSaulnier (D-Concord).

And with that, the LAO recommendation was ratified. Chalk up $362,000 in deficit relief. Only $17,863,800,000 more to go.

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About John Myers

John Myers is Sacramento Bureau Chief for KQED Public Radio and "The California Report," heard daily on 23 public radio stations across the Golden State.

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