The Brown Act What?

For the past six months the Brown Act has been a regular topic of conversation. Most recently, the MPC spent over an hour discussing it in a public forum at the Upham hotel with county counsel. As most of you know, the Act is meant to compel public officials to do the business of government in the clear light of day. There should be no secret government.

So several months ago I decided to actually read the Act to see what all the fuss was about. I was astounded by the opening recitals:

54950. In enacting this chapter, the Legislature finds and declares that the public commissions, boards and councils and the other public agencies in this State exist to aid in the conduct of the people's business. It is the intent of the law that their actions be taken openly and that their deliberations be conducted openly.

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 insist on remaining informed so that they may retain control over the instruments they have created. (Emphasis added)

To me, this is an extraordinary description of democratic purpose, and its content should be taught in all U.S. History classes. The rest of the act describes in detail how these intents should be implemented, but these underlying covenants contain the guiding principles for all California government. The Act says that all government should be conducted in the public eye and makes it very clear that any effort to subvert public input and scrutiny with secret deliberations is a violation of the Act. Yes, the lawyers and the Act itself allows for some minor exceptions, but when a Planning Commissioners says, “They (The Montecito Association) can really look at things in depth and they are not constrained by the Brown Act, which really prevents us from having that kind of dialogue,” it is, to me anyway, a clear attempt to subvert the spirit, if not the letter, of the Brown Act. The Act doesn’t say, “Go find ways to have conversations you can’t otherwise legally have.” It says, “The people insist on remaining informed” and have a codified right to do so!

Our public servants, many of whom are volunteers and should be commended for their hard work and dedication, should nevertheless imbue themselves with these opening recitals. Just look at the language: 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. Based on this simple expression of the fundamental contract in a democracy between the government and the governed, there is absolutely no excuse for any secret, private, unscrutinised conversations about our lives and the way we want them run. We have not given up our right to knowledge and the democratic majority judgments which follow therefrom.

When deals are made in the back room and conclusions reached out of the public spotlight, democracy has failed and our freedom is destroyed. In my view, there is no difference in government between a backroom deal and a dictatorship. And when someone tells me this standard is ridiculous and that people have to be able to have private conversations, I am reminded of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes’ admonition that government needs to be held to a higher standard.

The Brown Act holds all of us to a very high standard which we need to acknowledge every now and then so we can remember who we are and where we came from.