New State Law on Brown Act Based on Lawsuit over Tulare County Lunch Meetings
You may recall that back in 2010 an open government advocate sued the county because supervisors regularly held lunchtime meetings outside of public view, which the suit argued was in violation of the Brown Act. The case never gained much traction due to a lack of evidence that county business was discussed at the lunch gatherings and an appeals court ruled a year after the initial filing that the Brown Act did not provide a remedy for "past" violations, meaning since supervisors said the practice had been put to a stop the case could not move forward.
The Times Delta reports that “Jim Ewert, CA Newspaper Publishers Association’s general counsel, said the 5th District Court of Appeal ruling created ‘a vicious circle’ where government agencies could violate open-meeting laws, suspend the practice for a short time to avoid a court case and then could continue the violations again until another suit was filed.”
However, under the new law SB 1003, citizens will be able to enforce the Brown Act by submitting a cease and desist letter to the local government identifying the violation. If the agency wants to avoid court, then it must respond within 30 days with a "commitment letter" promising to terminate the problematic conduct. Note that the city or county does not have to admit wrongdoing. Without the new legislation, an offending government could merely say the practice was suspended and a court would have to dismiss litigation.
In response to the new law, Kathleen Bales-Lange, Tulare County Counsel, issued the following statement:
“Tulare County is passionate about the peoples’ right to know. Senate Bill 1003 clarifies and improves the existing Brown Act law and is a win-win for the public and local government. Had SB 1003 been in place when a lawsuit alleging Brown Act violations was filed against Tulare County, expensive, time-consuming litigation could have been avoided at a time when so many other issues demanded our attention and scarce funds.”
Supporters of the new law argue it is a low-cost way for citizens to demand accountability and places the burden on the local government rather than the citizen.
You can read the bill’s text here