Rancho Santa Margarita's new city manager—on the job less than three weeks—said there won't be any change to longstanding policies of public transparency in the wake of softened Brown Act rules. At the very least, she has the support of the city's two most recent mayors.
In June, California cities and counties were given the option of becoming more secretive when it came to conducting their business.
The state Legislature suspended Brown Act mandates that local jurisdictions—cities, counties, school districts, water districts and special districts—post meeting agendas for the public. The suspension also allows local boards and councils to forgo reporting to the public about actions taken during closed-session meetings.
The number of California municipalities choosing to abandon the transparency mandates is unknown.
But in Rancho Santa Margarita, city manager Jennifer Cervantez—who began working at City Hall on July 9—said it will be business as usual.
"I can't imagine a scenario that we would not" continue the status quo, Cervantez said. "Government has a responsibility to be transparent to the public and we encourage those residents to find out what's going on, and posting the agendas and inviting them to meetings is one way of doing that.
"It's very simple. When we take action during closed session and we're required to report out, I don't see us discontinuing that practice. This would not change the way that we do business with respect to posting agendas and providing information to the public that they are used to receiving."
Agendas, as well as archived audio of previous city and planning commission meetings, can be found on the city's website here and are usually published the Friday before the second and fourth Wednesday of each month, well in advance of the required 72 hours. The agenda for the meeting scheduled for tonight was posted sometime Friday before 5:25 p.m.
Mayor Tony Beall, who oversees those every other Wednesday city council meetings, seemed even more adamant than Cervantez.
"In this day and age when so many people have lost faith in their government leaders, the trend should be in the opposite direction, and we should have increased transparency and openness," he said. "To do otherwise creates opportunities for increased fraud and corruption. You don't have to look very far to see points of abuse."
The Capistrano Unified School District, for example, has come under fire for allegedly playing fast and loose with the Brown Act.
Councilman Jerry Holloway, the mayor of Rancho Santa Margarita in 2010, doesn't think the constituency will have to raise a finger to maintain the status quo, which he says it deserves.
"The city government of Rancho Santa Margarita has always been open, honest, and welcoming of public scrutiny and input," Holloway said. "Absent a legal mandate, the public should have access to all city government records and activity."
Jim Ewert, general counsel for the California Newspaper Publishers Association, told the Riverside Press-Enterprise he is “significantly concerned” about the suspension.
Citizens have no legal recourse, if some officials “see it in their best interest to cut a corner here or there,” Ewert was quoted as saying.
Public agency watchdog Californians Aware on Sunday to amend the state constitution to ensure agendas continue to be posted for the public. Click here to sign the petition, which needs 5,000 signatures.
How the state came to the decision of suspending the Brown Act mandates boiled down to one thing: money.
In California, mandates placed on local jurisdictions by Sacramento must be funded by the state. In the case of the Brown Act mandates, the state was subsidizing nearly $100 million a year by some estimates.
So in an effort to cut expenditures, the state decided to suspend the mandates.
In the southwest Riverside County town of Murrieta, Councilman Doug McAllister wasn't happy with the suspension of Brown Act provisions, calling it “way beyond the pale.”
“By pulling the requirement ... they … avoid the unfunded mandate argument knowing that local government will still notice as always," he said. "Just another budget scheme from Sacramento on the backs of local government.”
But according to Californians Aware, local jurisdictions learned how to milk the system.
They “could get a windfall of cash for doing something they had always done: preparing and posting meeting agendas for their governing and other bodies as mandated by Brown Act amendments passed in 1986—but as, in fact, routinely done anyway since time immemorial to satisfy practical and political expectations,” the nonprofit reported Friday.
In fact, according to Terry Francke of Californians Aware, the city of Vista claimed $20,174 reimbursement from the state for having posted notices for 109 meetings in 2005-06.
“The city claimed the flat rate for 90 shorter agendas,” Francke said of Vista. “The city claimed 30 minutes of staff time (at a $46.17 hourly rate) to prepare each item on the other agendas. For example, the city council’s Dec. 13, 2005, hearing included 35 agenda items; the city claimed $808.”
If the state is spending $100 million annually, it's not being spent in Rancho Santa Margarita. Since the 2005-06 fiscal year, RSM has submitted claims to the state for reimbursement for Open Meetings/Brown Act requirements that totaled $444,172. The city hasn't received a dime in reimbursement on those claims, according to information provided by Cervantez.
The San Francisco Chronicle summarized the history of the Brown Act:
The Brown Act, named for the Modesto assemblyman who authored it, requires that at least 72 hours before a public meeting, local legislative bodies must post an agenda "containing a brief general description of each item of business to be transacted or discussed ... in a location that is freely accessible to members of the public and on the local agency's Internet Web site." The act also stipulates that all decisions made in closed session must be announced publicly.
Murrieta City Attorney Leslie Devaney said the issue was just now getting the attention of local jurisdictions and some sorting out was left to do.
State Sen. Leland Yee, D-San Francisco, has introduced Senate Constitutional Amendment (SCA 7) that would ask California voters if they want the transparency. The amendment is stalled in committee.
“To anyone who's been watching this issue for a while, the real news is not that the Brown Act can be so dependent on the state budget,” said Francke, the California media law expert and general counsel for what is known as CalAware. “The real news is that 17 people in Sacramento are denying the public the chance to say ‘Enough.’ ”
In the meantime, the suspension could last through 2015, so it appears the public will need to demand transparency from its representatives if it wants to stay informed, Francke said.
Beall, serving his second consecutive term as mayor of Rancho Santa Margarita, doesn't think local residents need to worry.
"Rancho Santa Margarita has a proud record of conducting the people's business with the utmost openess and transparency," he said. "We will continue to do so regardless of the ill-conceived policies continuing to come out of Sacramento."
Ken Stone, Toni McAllister and Maggie Avants of Patch.com contributed to this report.