Open, Accountable Government
California Suspends Open Meetings Law to Save Money
In June, the California state legislature suspended the state's open meetings law, which requires cities and other agencies to publish the agendas of public meetings before they occur and make the minutes of these meetings available to citizens after they occur. In suspending the law, the state is sacrificing not only a fundamental element of a democratic society, but a vital tool that can actually save money.
Open meetings laws, also known as sunshine laws, require state and local government agencies to give the public access to meetings held by legislative bodies, as well as provide citizens access to records related to those meetings. These types of laws were established to enable the public to learn about and participate in decision making by public officials that affects their well-being and the health of their communities.
Currently, all 50 states have some type of open meetings laws requiring transparency, with the regulations varying by state. Each state law established similar requirements such as advance notice of meetings, recording and posting of minutes, and what is required before a decision can be considered "official."
The California legislature, as part of its Budget Act of 2012 (passed in June), suspended the state's open meetings law for the next three years in an effort to cut state expenditures. Since 1953, the Ralph M. Brown Act, commonly referred to as California’s open meetings law, has required local legislative bodies to post public meeting agendas (with brief descriptions of each item of business) for public review and in a location that is freely accessible to the public at least 72 hours in advance. The act also requires that all decisions made in closed session be announced publicly.
The state, facing increasingly tight budgets, suspended the law to save money. Under state rules, California is required to reimburse cities and counties for the cost of complying with mandated requirements, which includes its open meetings requirements. However, California has not reimbursed local governments for open meetings costs since 2005, accumulating a debt estimated at $96 million. By suspending the open meetings provision in the Brown Act, California expects to avoid paying open meetings costs for the next three years, as well as eliminate the current debt owed to local governments.
If these costs of meeting transparency seem excessive to you, it's because they are probably heavily inflated. A 2011 report by the Legislative Analyst’s Office showed many examples of questionable reimbursement costs by local (non-education) agencies. For example, Santa Barbara County government claimed a flat rate of $134 for each agenda produced and posted, and the Mesa Consolidated Water District claimed that more than half of its meeting agendas cost $155 each. But "the cost of posting agendas is basically zero," according to San Diegans for Open Government, a government watchdog organization.
San Diegans for Open Government filed a lawsuit claiming that the state’s suspension was unconstitutional and violated Proposition 59. Proposition 59 amended the state constitution to include safeguards for an individual’s right to access information as part of his or her right to petition the government and instruct elected officials. "Local government should not be allowed to use an un-reimbursed bill for relatively few dollars to justify doing the public’s business in secret," the organization said.
Despite the suspension, many counties are planning to continue to follow transparency standards for meetings. San Diego County, which has yet-to-be-reimbursed claims totaling to $400,000, plans to ignore the mandate suspension. "The money is not why we do it; we do it because it’s the right thing to do," said Michael Workman, a spokesperson for the county.
Though most big agencies may continue to comply with the Brown Act, said Jim Ewert, of the California Newspaper Publishers Association, "there may be some smaller Brown Act bodies, a cash-strapped mosquito abatement or water district, that may, for whatever reason, chose to conduct themselves in a different manner, and that’s the danger."
Transparency Saves Money
Though California sacrificed transparency for cost reasons, there are many examples of transparency (and the increased accountability that accompanies it) helping to prevent corruption and leading to more efficient government operations.
For example, Texas was able to save $4.8 million within the first two years of using a transparency website, called Where the Money Goes. Launched in 2007, the site acts as a management tool, allowing the public to track state spending to ensure accountability on every level. At the federal level, the IT Dashboard, an online tool that lets users examine every federal IT project by agency and shows whether each project is on schedule and on budget, is estimated to have saved $3 billion as struggling projects were cancelled or cut back.
Another example of transparency saving money is the Recovery Act website, Recovery.gov. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 website provides public disclosure about the recipients and projects funded under the Recovery Act. Despite hundreds of billions of dollars being spent in a very short period of time, there was very little fraud. According to Earl Devaney, former Chairman of the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board, "I have little empirical evidence to prove it, but I believe it is due to the transparency embedded in the Recovery Act."
Open Meetings Laws in Other States
Many states are experiencing economic difficulties but have chosen to strengthen their open meetings laws instead of weakening them. In New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo (D) signed a measure on Jan. 3 that requires documents or resolutions discussed in meetings to be made available to the public, via hard copy or on the Internet. In the past, agencies were not required to make such documents available to the public if they were deemed to be too costly to produce.
In Illinois, on July 19, Governor Pat Quinn (D) signed House Bill 4687, requiring meeting notices and agendas to be available to the public 48 hours in advance in order to increase government accountability and reduce corruption. This legislation was influenced by a court case related to an Illinois municipality that posted a meeting notice in a building that was neither open on the weekends nor accessible to the public. H.B. 4687 will close that loophole.
Despite these efforts, cities and counties in many states continue to struggle to comply with open meetings laws. For instance, earlier this month, some New York communities passed resolutions stating that residents with natural gas beneath their land have the right to extract it, essentially prohibiting local fracking bans. Some residents in these communities complained that local government officials violated their open meetings laws by not adequately notifying the public that this issue was being considered. In Hancock, NY, a resident argued that a resolution on natural gas extraction was not put on the government’s website, nor was the public notified of any changes prior to the meeting. In Fremont, NY, residents claimed that resolutions were not made available to the public prior to the meeting and that the minutes were not widely distributed to individuals afterward.
California, and every other state, has a responsibility to provide its citizens with information about the public business elected and appointed officials are conducting and the decisions they are considering. Government of and for the people requires that people know about and can participate in government decisions that may affect their health and well-being. A revenue shortfall can’t be an excuse for withholding public information – especially when the costs of providing information today are almost nil.
Image in teaser by flickr user Alhambra123, used under a Creative Commons license.