Good news for the public’s right to know. With the deadline approaching for taking action, California Gov. Jerry Brown recently signed a measure that restores the public’s ability to enforce the Brown Act when a violation occurs.
Co-sponsored by the California Newspaper Publishers Association (CNPA) and Californians Aware, Senate Bill 1003, by Sen. Leland Yee (D-San Francisco), overturns an appellate court’s decision that existing law does not provide a remedy for past Brown Act violations by a local agency.
According to CNPA, when the bill takes effect Jan. 1, 2013, SB 1003 will allow a district attorney or interested person to submit a letter to an agency within nine months of an alleged violation setting forth the circumstances of the violation and demanding that the agency cease its behavior. The agency will then have 30 days to issue a “commitment letter” stating it will end the conduct that gave rise to the allegation.
If the agency continues to violate the act after the issuance of the letter, or if the agency refuses to issue a commitment letter, the interested person has 60 days to file an action in court for declaratory relief or a writ to enforce the law for the past violation.
The measure was prompted after the Tulare County Board of Supervisors held more than “46 regular lunchtime meetings outside of public view, without public notification and paid for with public funds,” according to CNPA.
When the case went to court, the board said it had suspended the practice, despite the litigation filed by Rich McKee, the Visalia Times-Delta newspaper and CNPA. The 5th District Court of Appeal ruled the Brown Act did not provide a remedy for past violations.
According to a Visalia Times-Delta article, Jim Ewert, CNPA’s general counsel, said the court’s ruling created “a vicious circle” where government agencies could violate open-meeting laws, suspend the practice for a short time to avoid a court case and then continue the violations again until another suit was filed.
“It eviscerated the Brown Act,” Ewert said. “It gave governing bodies a free bite at the apple.”
CNPA and the Sacramento-based government transparency advocate Californians Aware then approached Yee to sponsor legislation that allowed lawsuits against governing boards for recent past violations.
“Now the public doesn’t need to wait until they do it again,” Ewert said. “It protects the public’s ability to properly oversee the agencies that are governing them.”
“You don’t have to hire a high-priced attorney,” Yee said in the Visalia Times-Delta article. “It can be as simple as writing a letter and raising the issues of concern.”
In a written statement, Kathleen Bales-Lange, Tulare County counsel, said, “Tulare County is passionate about the peoples’ right to know. Senate Bill 1003 clarifies and improves the existing Brown Act law and is a win-win for the public and local government.”