CityWatch, June 22, 2012
Vol 10 Issue 50
RETHINKING LA - When it comes to California’s Brown Act and Public
Records Act commitment to open meetings and transparency, LA’s
Neighborhood Councils are held to the same high standard as the LA
County’s Board of Supervisors and LA’s City Council.
On the one hand this seems fair, after all, we’re all in this together and the spirit of the law is simply good governance.
when the rubber hits the road, Neighborhood Councils are completely
out-gunned and the result has had a chilling effect on grassroots
Neighborhood Councils continue to waste energy debating the impact
of Facebook pages on their ability to engage in a public discussion
without engaging in a serial meeting, a violation of the Brown Act.
Unfortunately, the threat of liability has prompted some Councils to
simply shut down their Social Media accounts as a solution to conducting
their business openly and in accordance with the law.
Neighborhood Councils have been pummeled with Public Record Requests to
the point that their solution is to simply refuse all documents and
materials so that they can honestly respond to invasive and cumbersome
requests by saying, “We have nothing!” which is an unfortunate result to
the threat of liability.
Other Neighborhood Councils live in
fear of violating the Brown Act through email conversations between
Board members, resulting in firewalls that literally separate and
isolate community members rather than bringing them together.
three examples demonstrate the unfortunate outcome of the open meeting
commitment: community members who disengage from their community and
each other, all in response to threats of liability.
Francke, President of Calaware, a non-profit committed to supporting and
defending open government, dismisses the concerns by explaining, “The
only concern of the Brown Act is that physical congregations or digital
linkups, online or otherwise, not be used to build majority consensus
about something the members should be reserving to meetings. I don't
know what kind of participation is contemplated, but if there's no
contemporaneous or serial discussion by the majority of the same topic,
there should be no risk.”
Francke knows what he’s talking about.
He just settled a lawsuit with the LA County Supervisors in which he
charged them with multiple violations of the Brown Act, including
closed-door meetings and a conference call with the Governor, resulting
in the Board paying $14,750 and including a statement regarding the
September 2011 meetings in the official "Statement of Proceedings'' for
On the one hand, large municipal bodies such as the
County Supervisors and LA’s City Council repeatedly challenge the Brown
Act and the Public Records Act with their behavior, supported by their
deep pockets and their abundant legal counsel.
On the other hand,
community volunteers find themselves vulnerable and overwhelmed by
restrictions that have a chilling impact on their desire to engage the
community and advise City Hall.
Francke suggests that it is time for Neighborhood Councils to enjoy some sunshine, in the form of a city Sunshine Ordinance.
ordinance would have to be done by initiative and would have to amend
the city charter. That's a tall order in terms of signature gathering,
but Los Angeles residents have one advantage in such efforts that exists
nowhere else in the state: the Neighborhood Councils. If most NC
members, followers and alumni could agree on a common text for reform,
they could provide an experienced and highly motivated corps of petition
circulators to get the measure on the ballot.
Ordinance could not only increase the visibility of what is done at City
Hall and in the departments and the accountability of those who do it
(or fail to), but address problems like the one you raise in your most
recent column: the failure of adequate notice to the NCs of matters to
be docketed by the council. In broad terms, the Sunshine Ordinance
strategy is pretty simple: Come up with a list of changes for which you
can easily explain the need to the public, creating a reasonable agenda
for public participation; present it to the council for adoption; watch
the council attempt to water it down, stall its serious consideration or
reject it outright; then launch signature gathering, citing the
council's resistance to reform.
“I don't mean to oversimplify
the task: it involves long, hard work, but for some sense of what voters
will do when given a chance to play a role in controlling their own
political institutions, look at the Sunshine Ordinance just placed on
the November ballot in the tiny (18,000) City of Dixon, based on
petitions circulated by an ardent civic watchdog and a relative handful
of her friends. You won't find a tougher upgrading of the Brown Act,
Public Records Act and similar rules anywhere. Another sunshine
measure, on the Berkeley ballot, is not as demanding but does emphasize
giving the public greater advance notice of items on city bodies'
If Neighborhood Councils have any hope of keeping up
with City Hall, they need a Sunshine Ordinance that keeps City Hall open
and transparent without strangling the public in obstacles that can’t