It’s so darn bandied-about that it’s become easy to forget that Abraham Lincoln’s perfect description of the American form of government,1 or at least its to-be-constantly-striven-for ideal form, as “of the people, by the people, for the people” has a great deal of meaning packed into it. In particular, if government is to be of and for the people then the people have to have access to the spaces in which its work is done and advance notice of when it’s happening.
And governments being what they are2 they would often prefer to keep people out of the process entirely by making their decisions and doing their work in secret. To prevent this, to preserve Lincoln’s ideal, we need laws to protect our access. In California such access is protected by the Brown Act.
One of the rights protected by the Brown Act is the right to have notice of the time, place, and subject matter of upcoming meetings. This protection comes in two forms. First, §54594.2 requires agendas to be posted in public and on the web 72 hours before a meeting.3 But of course, this is only sufficient if you remember to check the posting location or the website. If you don’t or can’t do that you’re out of luck.
Which is where §54954.1 comes in. This section requires agencies to mail agendas and supporting documents to anyone who asks them to do so. They’re required to send them at the same time they post the agendas or when they distribute agendas to their board, whichever is earlier.
And as I said, government agencies being what they are, they would really like to do their work in secret, to discourage public participation. And one way they do that is to increase transaction costs to the point where, they hope, people just give up on participation. In this vein, a lot of local agencies in the City of LA4 have really glommed on to the fact that the law only requires them to mail the agendas and documents.
They thus refuse to email them to people, even when they email them to their own boards of directors. They insist on sending by postal mail even though, or perhaps because, it’s slow, it may arrive after the meeting and it requires requesters to reveal their addresses, which has the added effect of making it essentially impossibly for homeless constituents to use it.
When agencies insist on sending agendas by certified mail, which believe it or not some of them do, these effects are compounded because working people aren’t often home when the mail comes. This fact alone can add days to the process of receiving the agenda, by which time the meeting is likely long past.
And this is why SB931, introduced a couple weeks ago by State Senator Bob Wieckowski, is so essential. This bill would solve this problem by adding just one small sentence to §54954.1 of the Brown Act, shown below in blue, requiring agencies to send agendas and supporting documents by email if so requested:
54954.1. Any person may request that a copy of the agenda, or a copy of all the documents constituting the agenda packet, of any meeting of a legislative body be mailed to that person. A legislative body shall email a copy of the agenda or a copy of all the documents constituting the agenda packet if the person requests that the item or items be delivered by email.
It’s hard to imagine any principled reasons for opposing this bill. In my experience most local agencies are happy to email agendas. The few that aren’t are very obviously only trying to impede access to their meetings, which is not a reason they can put in a public letter of opposition. So we’ll see what happens!
Meanwhile, if you want to support the bill, send letters to Wieckowski staffer Francisco Montes at Francisco.Montes@sen.ca.gov. And read on for a transcription of the letter of support I sent this morning on behalf of the Los Angeles Sunshine Coalition, an advocate for government transparency that I have the pleasure of working with.5
February 15, 2020
The Honorable Bob Wieckowski
California State Senate
State Capitol, Room 4085
Sacramento, CA 95814
Re: SB931 – SUPPORT
Dear Senator Wieckowski:
I write today on behalf of the Los Angeles Sunshine Coalition, an unincorporated association that, since 2014, has worked to expand transparency in local government through education, advocacy, litigation, and activism. Our members regularly attend public meetings at which we give comment, record and publish videos of the proceedings, and audit local agency compliance with the Brown Act. To do this, of course, we need to know in advance when and where meetings are scheduled to take place.
The Brown Act, which SB931 would amend, currently requires local agencies to post physical copies of their agendas in public in advance of meetings and in electronic form on their web sites if they have them. These posted agendas inform the public of what topics will be covered at a given meeting, but they don’t allow people to learn that a meeting will take place unless one happens to check the posting location or the web site.
In order to address this problem the Brown Act also requires local agencies to mail copies of agendas and associated documents to members of the public on request. Such requests are valid for an entire calendar year and serve as a way for interested people to be informed of and about upcoming meetings without having to remember to check multiple posting locations or web sites on a regular basis.
In most cases agencies will send electronic copies of agendas and documents by email on request. Many agencies have automated systems to accomplish this. However, there are agencies that insist on using postal mail to deliver agendas and documents. In some cases they require requesters to pay postage and per-page copy charges, often in advance of sending materials. Occasionally they insist on mailing materials by methods which require the recipient’s signature.
These measures, of course, delay notification, often until the actual date of the meeting is past. This effect is especially harmful with respect to special meetings, for which only 24 hours notice is required. When agencies require signatures to receive agendas it becomes even more difficult to receive them in a timely manner. People with full time jobs are rarely home when mail is delivered and are often unable to pick up materials at the post office immediately.
SB931 would solve this problem by requiring agencies to email copies of agendas and associated documents on request. This change will allow interested members of the public to attend and monitor meetings much more efficiently and effectively than is now possible, will prevent people missing meetings because mailed agenda materials arrived late, and will eliminate per-agenda charges for postage and copying.
This bill would vastly increase public access to local agency meetings and therefore The Los Angeles Sunshine Coalition supports it as written. We would, however, like to offer one suggestion to improve the bill. As written it would require agencies to email electronic copies of the agenda packet documents along with agendas. Often these agenda packets contain a significant amount of data, which is sometimes too large to attach to an email. Agencies that presently email meeting materials solve this problem by emailing download links for the packets rather than attaching them. We recommend that, in the interest of clarity, the law specify that emailing download links for the agenda and agenda packet would meet its requirements.
Please do not hesitate to contact me if I can further assist your office in passing this important bill. I can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org
Policy and advocacy coordinator
Los Angeles Sunshine Coalition
This image of heroic California State Senator Bob Wieckowski is © 2020 MichaelKohlhaas.Org and enjoys a close family-type relationship with this little number over here.
- Not exaggerating here, this is actually perfect.
- That is, they’re composed of human beings.
- I’m glossing over some details here, but they don’t affect the argument. The 72 hour rule is for so-called regular meetings. There are also special meetings, requiring only 24 hours notice and emergency meetings, requiring only 2 hours notice.
- And almost certainly elsewhere, because these people do share ideas with one another, and not only that but their commonality of interest in denying people access makes them all think of the same tactics even without having to posit an active conspiracy. Which of course is not to say that an active conspiracy doesn’t exist. It does and it’s known variously as the California Downtown Association and the League of California Cities.
- If you want to get involved with that group drop me a line at email@example.com.