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Olivia Uribe: The Brown Act Ensures Your Right to Participate

Ensuring transparency and accountability while protecting the public's right to participate make the Brown Act a force to be reckoned with in California.

To make democracy work, we must be a nation of participants, not simply observers.
Louis L’Amour

One of the primary objectives of the Santa Barbara County Action Network, or SB CAN, is to encourage and increase local participation in all phases of our democratic process. Our rights to participate in the decision-making process of local government should be taken seriously.

To guard against secrecy and provide the kind of transparency and accountability needed to protect those rights, the California enacted the Ralph M. Brown Act in 1953. This law is often alluded to in public meetings, but what is it exactly? Briefly stated, it is a bill of rights empowering us to be strong participants in decisions that affect us, our families, and community.

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Olivia Uribe

The public’s attendance at a public meeting cannot be conditional. Whatever your political inclinations or immigration status, you are part of the public that is allowed to participate in public meetings of “legislative bodies,” which include meetings of boards of supervisors, city councils, school boards, planning commissions and other public bodies. You do not have to sign in or divulge personal information in order to attend.

 

According to the Brown Act, these meetings “exist to aid in the conduct of people’s business.” The law states that “their action be taken openly and that their deliberation be conducted openly.” Therefore, no meetings or communication should take place between the majority of a “governing body” on any issue on which a decision or the promise of a decision is made, without a public meeting. The exceptions are closed meetings to discuss confidential personnel issues, litigation or emergencies. Regardless, closed meetings must be noted on agendas and must include the general information to be discussed. At the next public meeting after the closed session, the governing body must have available a report of actions taken.

Public meetings must be held within the jurisdiction of that governing body, and in a place accessible to all of the public. Meetings can be recorded, and the agenda must be available 72 hours prior to a meeting. Only items listed on the agenda may be thoroughly discussed, or acted upon. However, during public comment periods, you have the right to speak to any issue concerning you, except items that have been previously decided. Furthermore, the Brown Act specifically prohibits members of the governing body from “prohibiting public criticism of policies, procedures, programs or services of the agency or of the acts or omissions of that body.”

You have the right to receive mailed materials for all public meetings, including agendas, notices, reports on action from closed sessions, and copies of contracts and settlement agreements as they become available. Local media outlets must request such materials as well, because the only information required to be sent to them is that regarding a tax imposed or increased.

The Brown Act was established on this principle: “The people of this state do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies which serve them. The people in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know. The people have insisted on remaining informed so that they may retain control over the instruments they have created.”

This Act aims to provides transparency and accountability in local government, and protect the public’s right to participate in the decision-making process. Yet to retain those rights we must exercise them by attending public meetings and becoming involved in the public process. Remembering that rights foresworn are rights forgone, we all need to make a greater effort to be active, informed participants in local government.

Olivia Uribe is associate director of the Santa Barbara County Action Network (SB CAN). She can be reached at 805.563.0463 or [email protected]. This commentary originally appeared in the Santa Maria Times.

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