Since taking office, Governor Jerry Brown has been working bravely to knock down California’s dangerous deficit. He’s looking high and low for new funds – from reducing the number of state paid cell phones by half, halting new agency car purchases and by issuing a statewide hiring freeze that could save $363 million.
Gov. Brown isn’t just looking to cut out waste in government. He is also looking to continue collecting vital revenue by extending the Schwarzenegger era tax increases.
In fact, Governor Brown has been just about spot on. But even Jerry Brown can make mistakes – and he will make a big one if he follows through on his proposal to cut the state funds used to support California’s excellent open meeting laws.
In order to clean up California’s fiscal mess, our government is going to have to make some more tough decisions in the months and years ahead. Very important services are going to be cut. And taxes are almost certain to be raised.
Winning public support for these tough choices relies on making sure Californians understand how these choices were made. And thanks to our open meeting laws, we know that the public’s business is conducted in pubic.
But this week Governor Brown has put one of the foundations of a better government on the chopping block. He is seeking to cut several unfunded state mandates including ones that deal with providing notices to the public regarding open meetings of local bodies. Since the passage of the Brown Act in 1953, Californians have been guaranteed the right to attend and partake in public meetings. Cutting this funding will put the law in “legal limbo.”
While it is tempting to look at across the board cuts in times of budget crises, keeping our local governments open, transparent and responsible to the people remains paramount to a successful democracy. That’s why these cuts that are threatening our open meeting laws should be permanently off the table.
An open government is something that we all should demand, if not expect. We need only to look at the scandal in the City of Bell to understand how important the Brown Act – and public awareness – is to an effective and ethical government. The lack of transparency in Bell allowed city leaders to take about $5.5 million from the city. We must learn from the Bell example and make local governments even more open – not less.
When voters passed Proposition 59 in 2004, our Constitution changed for the better. Prop 59 mandated that meetings and records of local governments and officials be accessible to the general public. For that to happen, local governments are required to – among other things – print notices and agendas for upcoming meetings. The state is then required to reimburse them, to the tune of $16.6 million for 2008-2009.
Technically, the funding that went towards reimbursing local governments for photocopying and posting notices and agendas for public meetings was suspended by the legislature in last year’s budget. But Governor Brown is seeking to keep it suspended for the next fiscal year.
But at what cost?
According to the California League of Cities, no city has yet used the loophole of suspended funding to stop following the law. But that could change anytime.
Because of laws like the Brown Act and Proposition 59, California has truly been able to say that we have an open state government that encourages civic participation. This is a cornerstone of who we are as Californians. We understand that cuts must be made, but for the benefit of our state – and our democracy – let’s keep the meetings open and the sun shining in.
Phil Ting is Assessor Recorder of San Francisco. He is working on a state level to organize support for a split-roll tax system. On a local level, he is a candidate for Mayor of San Francisco looking to find ways to promote greater public participation and User-Generated Government.