Enforcing the state’s open meeting law

The L.A. Times tackles a story about the number of Brown Act violations investigated by the District Attorney’s office, which receives dozens of complaints a year from constiuents across Los Angeles county. The Brown Act is the state’s open meeting law.

Among the cities mentioned in the story is Walnut, which was threatened with litigation for a closed door meeting in which, “Mayor Joaquin Lim was said to have led a council discussion and polled his colleagues about opposing construction of an NFL stadium in the neighboring city of Industry,” according to the Times article.

But as Terry Francke points out in the story, it is very difficult to see criminal charges come from Brown Act violations.

But criminal charges are nearly impossible to bring, said Terry Francke, a lawyer and author of a guide to the state’s open meetings law. Prosecutors must show that an official intentionally violated the law, a difficult standard to meet in court, he said.

“The idea of a letter, firing a shot across the offender’s bow, is a very good one,” Francke said.

As reporters, we frequently receive news tips from people alerting us of a possible Brown Act violation, such as when a majority of council members allegedly make a decision before an item ever appears on the agenda. But even proving that is especially difficult since elected officials can simply say, “No, I did not violate the Brown Act.”

  • gilman

    The problem with the Brown Act is it lacks any “teeth” for violations. While it is great that the DA occasionally sends out “warning” letters, even then many City officials still don’t believe they are violating the law.
    One only attend their local City Council meeting to realize that officials have made their mind up on issues long before the meeting. Serious and complicated issues are decided with little or no discussion whatsoever by the Council?

    Often City Managers meet one on one with Council Members and gain a majority approval prior to the issue being brought up at a public meeting. When called out on these type of violations, many Council members seem upset by the Brown Act limitations? I guess they have forgotten who’s business they are conducting….ours!
    It is time to re-vamp the Brown Act and to include real and serious civil, and/or criminal penalties for those who violate the act.

  • Anonymous

    The problem with the Brown Act is it that is has become an arbitrarily enforced trap for the unwary and STILL fails to achieve its two basic purposes: to promote transparency and public involvement in decision-making and to prevent self-dealing among public officials.

    Just as CEQA was INTEDED to serve as a tool to promote the thoughtful consideration of envirnmental impacts or projects, it has degenerated into a tool for partisans to fruste the will the majority though endless procedural hurdles

  • gilman

    Well I certainly would not disagree with many of anonymous’ observations. I would suggest that the reason the Act is “arbitrarily” enforced is it is left up to the DA’s office for the County where the violation occurred. Some DA’s investigate, some don’t and almost all decisions to move forward on violations are politically motivated. Having a central enforcement agency, such as the State Attorney General and providing some real and meaningful penalties would go a long way toward real enforcement.
    As for your points related to CEQA, again I wouldn’t disagree. However, with so few protections available for the average citizen, CEQA has proven one of the few ways to legally fight against unfair and poorly laid out projects.

  • Anonymous

    Gilman is a HOMO!

  • Anonymous

    I don’t think that meeting one on one is a violation–I think it is only group meetings outside of public view that is prohibited

  • gilman

    Unfortunately, your analysis is incorrect regarding one on one meetings. In the Stockton Newspapers, Inc. v. Stockton Redevelopment Agency court case, the court concluded that members of an agency meeting in a series of one on one conversations for the purpose of collectively deciding to approve an issue before them was a violation of the Brown Act. The technique is commonly called “serial meetings”.
    Part of the reason for the Brown Act mandates is to insure that residents/citizens have an opportunity to observe the deliberation process that occurs with our elected officials. If these officials are meeting one on one and making their decisions prior to a public meeting, well then we are being deprived of observing the process or really having any involvement.

  • gilman

    he problem with the Brown Act is it lacks any “teeth” for violations. While it is great that the DA occasionally sends out “warning” letters, even then many City officials still don’t believe they are violating the law.
    One only attend their local City Council meeting to realize that officials have made their mind up on issues long before the meeting. Serious and complicated issues are decided with little or no discussion whatsoever by the Council?

    Often City Managers meet one on one with Council Members and gain a majority approval prior to the issue being brought up at a public meeting. When called out on these type of violations, many Council members seem upset by the Brown Act limitations? I guess they have forgotten who’s business they are conducting….ours!
    It is time to re-vamp the Brown Act and to include real and serious civil, and/or criminal penalties for those who violate the act.

  • gilman

    Unfortunately, your analysis is incorrect regarding one on one meetings. In the Stockton Newspapers, Inc. v. Stockton Redevelopment Agency court case, the court concluded that members of an agency meeting in a series of one on one conversations for the purpose of collectively deciding to approve an issue before them was a violation of the Brown Act. The technique is commonly called “serial meetings”.
    Part of the reason for the Brown Act mandates is to insure that residents/citizens have an opportunity to observe the deliberation process that occurs with our elected officials. If these officials are meeting one on one and making their decisions prior to a public meeting, well then we are being deprived of observing the process or really having any involvement.