The Brown Act, California's open meeting law, "is foundational to the democratic process," according to Joan Cassman, senior partner at Hanson Bridgett and head of the law firm's Government and Public Agency Section. In a presentation for the Center's Public Sector Roundtable, Cassman said that by insuring government meetings are open to the public, the act "provides the governed with a place at the table" when important decisions are made. As the introduction to the act states, "The people insist on remaining informed so that they may retain control over the instruments they have created."
But as crucial as the Act may be, it can be difficult to interpret and apply in day-to-day situations, Cassman continued. What, for example, is a meeting? When a majority of members of a legislative body get together and talk about business pertaining to the agency they serve, they are meeting for the purposes of the Act whether or not they are in council chambers or at the city's 4th of July picnic. They are also meeting if they talk serially to one another for the purpose of driving consensus on an issue, or if they email a majority of their fellow legislators to discuss public business.
And what does "open" mean? To be open under the Brown Act, a regular meeting must be preceded by 72 hours by public notice, posted in an accessible location. An open meeting must allow all members of the public the opportunity to comment on matters pertaining to the agency or on an agenda.
Government bodies may meet in closed session for certain very defined purposes, such as discussing personnel issues or conferencing with labor negotiators. Deliberations in closed session must be kept confidential, but final actions taken in closed session must be reported out publicly.
"You may say these requirements don't help with government efficiency," Cassman said, "but efficiency is not as important as 'bringing the governed into the process.'"
Miriam Schulman is the associate director of the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.