California’s sunshine law celebrates 50 years

Wednesday, July 2, 2003

“The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know.”

— the Ralph M. Brown Act, 1953

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — A half-century ago, California’s scattering of open-meetings laws were easily skirted by local elected officials who insisted they weren’t holding meetings that required advance public notice — they were hosting secret “workshops” or “study sessions” that fell outside the laws.

But a historic convergence of interests emerged to create California’s landmark Brown Act, one of the nation’s first comprehensive open-meetings and open-records laws.

Fifty years later, some of the original authors and backers plan to gather today to celebrate the law, and to support a constitutional “Sunshine Amendment” declaring that the public has a fundamental right to attend government meetings and inspect government records.

The original 686-word, one-page Brown Act has grown to dozens of pages encompassing 12,845 words as state lawmakers closed loopholes and added definitions and exemptions.

But supporters say it still lacks one thing: teeth. What’s more, they say the law has been eroded by court decisions and government officials’ efforts to block access to records.

“The unfulfilled promise, I’m afraid, that 50 years has revealed, is enforcement,” said Terry Francke, general counsel of the California First Amendment Coalition.

Government officials still are free to violate the law unless a court intervenes.

By contrast, politicians who violate campaign-contribution restrictions face investigations and fines from the Fair Political Practices Commission under the 1974 Political Reform Act.

Two legislative attempts to add bite to the 1953 law were vetoed in 1999 and 2000 by Gov. Gray Davis. They would have required the state attorney general to issue legal opinions on alleged violations and allowed a judge to fine local governments $100 a day if they were found in violation.

This spring the governor proposed to save more than $9 million a year by dropping a government-funded mandate that city councils, county boards of supervisors, school boards and other local government boards post their agendas in public at least 72 hours before their regular meetings and 24 hours before special meetings.

An Assembly appropriations subcommittee on June 30 restored the money. The same day, the Senate unanimously sent the proposed constitutional amendment, SCA 1, to the Assembly, where a similar measure died last year.

Davis “is still very concerned about the chilling effect (the proposed amendment) would have on his deliberations here,” said spokesman Steve Maviglio. Davis’ vetoes and cost-saving proposal weren’t intended to undermine the act, he said.

The amendment wouldn’t change the Brown Act or other open-meetings and -records laws, but backers hope strong voter support would encourage courts to interpret it in the broadest possible way.

It has the backing not only of the First Amendment Coalition, California Newspaper Publishers Association and California Society of Newspaper Editors, but of the League of California Cities that backed the Brown Act to add uniformity to a crazy quilt of laws and practices.

They’re sponsoring a panel discussion in Sacramento today featuring former San Francisco Chronicle reporter Michael Harris, whose stories on secret government meetings helped spark the act, and Bud Carpenter, the former League attorney who wrote and lobbied for the act.

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