To lessen Calif. budget shortfall, public meetings may no longer be publicized

CALIFORNIA — A portion of Gov. Gray Davis’s budgetproposal, released in mid-May, would remove the requirement that governmentalbodies inform the public about upcoming meetings.Davis has proposedrepealing a portion of the state’s open-meetings law as a money-saving tactic tohelp close California’s budget gap, which is currently estimated at $38.2billion in the next 14 months, said Anita Gore, a spokesperson for the stateDepartment of Finance.The state spent $9 million to reimburse localagencies for publicizing meeting agendas in 2001-02, according toGore.Under one of California’s open-meetings laws, the Ralph M. BrownAct, local government bodies are required to post agendas in a location that is”freely accessible to members of the public” or must mail agendas to anyone whohas filed a written request to be notified of meetings. The act requires publicbodies to provide notice 72 hours prior to a regular meeting and 24 hours beforea special meeting. Public officials must describe what will be discussed and,during meetings, adhere to the topics listed on the agenda.Gore saidrepealing the requirement to publicize agendas is not intended to limit publicaccess to meetings or to change the state’s open-meetings law. “[Thelaw] is redundant. How can you have an open meeting if there isn’t a posting?People will still post agendas because it’s the right thing to do,” shesaid.But members of the public and press worry that repealing the portion of the BrownAct would reduce government accountability. “I think [Davis] isincredibly optimistic about local government doing the right thing,” said JimEwert, legal counsel for the California Newspaper Publishers Association. “Withall of those [requirements ] eliminated … all kinds of things can be put upjust an hour before a meeting.”The decision on whether to repeal theprovision in the Brown Act is currently under review and a final decision hasnot yet been made, according to Gore. California’s next fiscal year begins onJuly 1, 2003, but the state Legislature does not always meet thatdeadline.California’s other open-meetings law, the Bagley-Keene Act,applies only to statewide bodies and also requires those bodies to publicizemeeting agendas but does not entitle them to reimbursement for acquiredcosts.