Our View

Bill restores sanity to local government

By From page B3 | October 10, 2012

The issue: Brown signs measure giving some teeth to the state’s open meetings law

Gov. Jerry Brown and the state Legislature have sent a strong message to local government: Don’t cheat the system, and if you do, prepare to be held accountable.

At issue was enforcement of the state’s open meetings law, the Ralph M. Brown Act.

A NEW LAW related to the Brown Act overturns an appellate court’s decision in a case from Tulare County in which the court ruled that existing law does not provide a remedy for past violations by a local agency.

The challenge centered on a practice by the Tulare County Board of Supervisors, which routinely met over lunch, outside public view and without having given notice of a public meeting. The Visalia Times-Delta documented more than 46 such meetings. Taxpayers paid for the lunchtime sessions.

When challenged, county supervisors said the practice had ceased.

The court ruled that existing law did not provide any specific remedy for past violations, and since no current violations were alleged, that plaintiffs had no right to legal relief. That’s legal-speak for a judgment in favor of the plaintiffs, which may have included an order to cease such activities but also to recover legal fees.

Senate Bill 1003 by state Sen. Leland Yee, D-San Francisco, changes the rules for government accountability and thereby tips the scales back in favor of the public’s right to know how local governments are operating. It provides a specific process for members of the public to challenge past questionable — or outright illegal — actions by local government.

TAXPAYERS HAVE a reasonable expectation that local officials will conduct the public’s business in accordance with the law. If they do not, there’s a reasonable expectation that local officials can be forced to do so, in a manner that does not leave the public holding the bag for legal fees, should the government be found at fault.

Brown’s action came amid the late-September frenzy of legislative review, where literally hundreds of bills were either signed into law or vetoed. His signature on SB 1003 ensures that, effective Jan. 1, local governments no longer can pull these kinds of shenanigans with near impunity.

It’s a necessary change.

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