Suspending portions of California’s open meeting law means cities could hold off on things like posting agendas prior to meetings or announcing decisions made in closed session but San Mateo County officials plan to continue offering that information to the public.
In a move to help close the budget gap, California legislators opted to suspend some requirements under the Brown Act. Under the law, counties, cities, school districts and other local agencies must post agendas for meetings and disclose decisions made in closed session. A state mandate allows for those agencies to be reimbursed for the work done. Cutting the funding for the mandate has some arguing the legal requirements also go away. But in San Mateo County, local officials plan to continue the transparent practices. In addition, most report not getting reimbursement for meeting the mandate for many years.
For example, San Mateo County is owed about $623,551 from the state for meeting the open meeting law requirements, according to county Budget Director Jim Saco.
"When Governor Brown recently decided to stop reimbursing local government agencies for the costs of enforcing the Brown Act, he did not rescind the Brown Act itself – he just made it an ‘unfunded mandate,’” said county Supervisor Don Horsley. "It’s a shame that California’s budget is in such a shambles that this is how the governor is going to save an additional $95 million, which he says will be reinstated should his proposed tax initiative be approved in November.”
Despite that, Horsley said the county will continue to provide public notices. Local cities — South San Francisco, San Bruno, Millbrae, Burlingame, San Mateo, Foster City, Belmont, San Carlos, Half Moon Bay and Redwood City — also confirmed that the practices of making such information available would not change.
For local officials the cut really doesn’t change anything since the last time a payment was received by most cities was in 2005 or 2006.
"Without question, we could use these resources for other important city objectives but informing the community should always be a vital function of government,” said Half Moon Bay City Manager Laura Snideman.
Owed from state
Dating back to the 2006-07 fiscal year, Half Moon Bay is owed $123,640 from the state to cover meeting the Brown Act requirements.
Redwood City typically requested reimbursements of $25,000 to $35,000 annually to cover staff time related to preparing and posting agendas for the council, boards and commissions, Redwood City spokesman Malcolm Smith said. Looking back as far as 2003, the city has not been reimbursed by the state since at least that year, he said.
San Mateo has received 2.5 percent of its outstanding reimbursement claims over the past decade, said City Clerk Patrice Olds. San Mateo’s annual claim averages $26,382. The last time the city received a payment was in the 2005-06 fiscal year. It was for $1,887. Belmont last received a payment in 2005 as well, said City Clerk Terri Cook. Millbrae’s annual claim is a bit less, at $18,000. It’s last payment came through in 2006, said City Clerk Angela Louis.
Burlingame’s annual request is about $20,000. Since the 1997-98 fiscal year, Burlingame is owed over $200,000 to cover Brown Act requirements.
"We submit the annual reports and sometimes they pay and sometimes they do not. ... We don’t rely on the payments to run the city. If they pay, then it’s gravy,” said Burlingame Finance Director Jesus Nava.
Foster City Mayor Art Kiesel hopes the state learned something when making this decision.
"In the interest of keeping our residents informed, Foster City will continue publishing the agenda as it does today,” said Kiesel. "I fully support transparency in government and have hopeful expectations that the state government will do so as well. Now that some state representatives have read the Brown Act, perhaps they might consider implementing it for themselves.”
On Friday, the League of California Cities Board of Directors adopted a resolution congratulating cities for continuing to comply with the Brown Act and called for the Legislature to comply with similar transparency requirements. Some mandates within the Brown Act were also suspended in 1990.
The suspension of the mandate doesn’t affect school districts, but superintendents agreed the local districts will continue to work openly with the public.
Heather Murtagh can be reached by email: firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone: (650) 344-5200 ext. 105.