California governor signs new open-meetings law

CALIFORNIA — A new bill signed by Gov. Gray Davis in September\ncould allow a student newspaper’s open meetings lawsuit against\nthe University of California’s Board of Regents to be reheard.\n

The Daily Nexus, the University of California at Santa\nBarbara’s student newspaper, sued the board of regents in 1996\nfor violating the Bagley-Keene Act, a state open-meetings law,\nby holding secret meetings.

The California Supreme Court dismissed the suit in June, ruling\nthat the newspaper had missed the 30-day deadline for filing a\ncomplaint for an open-meetings law violation.

The new legislation, which was passed in response to The\nNexus’ suit, extends the period of time for filing an open\nmeetings violation claim from 30 days to 90 days. It also allows\nthe newspaper to seek declaratory relief, a declaration by the\ncourt that the regents violated the open-meetings law. However,\nThe Daily Nexus cannot ask the court — as it did in its\nfirst lawsuit — to nullify the results of the secret meetings.\n

The bill supersedes an earlier decision by the California Supreme\nCourt to dismiss the case because the wording of the Bagley-Keene\nAct did not allow individuals or organizations to sue for past\nviolations of the law.

Matt Hurst, editor of The Daily Nexus, said the newspaper\nis leaving the decision of whether to pursue the case up to former\nstaff writer Tim Molloy, the reporter who filed the lawsuit in\n1996.

“We were happy that [Gray] overturned it, but as of right\nnow we don’t plan on doing anything about it, and we are just\nchecking our options with Mr. Molloy,” Hurst said.

In its lawsuit, The Daily Nexus claimed that through\nsecret phone calls, former Gov. Pete Wilson, a member of the board\nof regents, solicited votes in an attempt to repeal the university’s\naffirmative action policy before the board’s scheduled public\nmeeting on July 20, 1995.

The newspaper filed the case after the 30-day limit because\nit did not learn of the secret phone calls until six months after\nthey took place.

In addition to extending the filing period for public complaints\nagainst state agencies that may have met illegally, the new bill,\nintroduced by California Assembly Majority Floor Leader Kevin\nShelley, D-San Francisco/San Mateo, requires state agencies\nto post the times of public meetings on the Internet.

Dan Tokaji, an American Civil Liberties Union attorney representing\nThe Daily Nexus, said he and Molloy have not decided whether\nto pursue the case at this time.

“[The dismissal of the case] was an impetus behind the\nlegislative amendment,” Tokaji said. “Both the legislator\nand Gov. Davis recognized that the California Supreme Court’s\ndecision, if allowed to stand, would do tremendous damage to the\nprinciple of open government, and Gov. Davis is to be applauded\nfor standing up to fight for open government”