Brown v. Brown

Governor Jerry Brown is no relation to the late Assemblyman Ralph Brown, for whom the Ralph M. Brown Act—which since 1953 as guaranteed the public’s right to attend and participate in meetings of local legislative bodies in California—was named.

The governor is increasingly no friend of the Brown Act, despite sharing its name, or of its companion, the California Public Records Act.

As the first year of the 2017-2018 legislative session came to a close last month, the governor vetoed two bills that would have aided in the ongoing battle for public transparency.

One measure introduced this year was intended to increase the speed of responses to records requests and compliance with the California Public Records Act generally. In rejecting AB 1479 by Assemblymember Rob Bonta (D-Alameda), the governor stated he was unconvinced that the bill would have a measurable impact.

By the time the bill reached Gov. Brown’s desk, it would only have required every agency to establish a custodian of record to handle public records inquiries. An earlier version of the bill that would have allowed a court to impose a $5,000 fine on an agency that unreasonably delayed responding to a request, or otherwise acted in bad faith in executing its duties under the public records act.In his veto message the governor did signal his willingness to consider future legislation strengthening the public records act.

Also last month, the governor signed a bill that will allow cities, counties and special districts to keep their rationales for granting pay and benefit increases secret—not just during their negotiations with employee bargaining units, but permanently.

The new law creates an exemption from disclosure under the California Public Records Act for records of local agencies related to pay and benefits bargaining with employees “that reveal a local agency’s deliberative processes, impressions, evaluations, opinions, recommendations, meeting minutes, research, work products, theories, or strategy, or that provide instruction, advice, or training to employees who do not have full collective bargaining rights.”

Oddly, the bill was not requested or supported by local agencies themselves, but rather by the public employee unions.

State employers and employee bargaining units already must “sunshine” their negotiations in specific public proceedings. Employee bargaining units must present their initial negotiating proposals to the employing agency at a public meeting, at which point the proposals go on the public record. And the employers must likewise present their proposals or counterproposals to the employee units at a public meeting, on the record as well.

At the local level, only school and community college districts are required to “sunshine” their bargaining under similar rules.

All too often, public bodies and public servants forget the “public” part of their titles or job descriptions. More transparency, not less, is what’s needed.

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