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Brown Act

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What is the Brown Act? Here is a quick overview


The Ralph M. Brown Act (Gov. Code, § 549501 et seq., hereinafter “the Brown Act,” or “the Act”) governs meetings conducted by local legislative bodies, such as boards of supervisors, city councils and school boards. The Act represents the Legislature’s determination of how the balance should be struck between public access to meetings of multi-member public bodies on the one hand and the need for confidential candor, debate, and information gathering on the other. As the rest of this pamphlet will indicate, the Legislature has established a presumption in favor of public access. As the courts have stated, the purpose of the Brown Act is to facilitate public participation in local government decisions and to curb misuse of the democratic process by secret legislation by public bodies. (Cohan v. City of Thousand Oaks (1994) 30 Cal.App.4th 547, 555.) To these ends, the Brown Act imposes an “open meeting” requirement on local legislative bodies. (§ 54953 (a); Boyle v. City of Redondo Beach (1999) 70 Cal.App.4th 1109, 1116.) However, the Act also contains specific exceptions from the open meeting requirements where government has a demonstrated need for confidentiality. These exceptions have been construed narrowly; thus if a specific statutory exception authorizing a closed session cannot be found, the matter must be conducted in public regardless of its sensitivity. (§ 54962; Rowen v. Santa Clara Unified School District (1981) 121 Cal.App.3d 231, 234; 68 Ops.Cal.Atty.Gen. 34, 41-42 (1985).)

Where matters are not subject to a closed meeting exception, the Act has been interpreted to mean thatall of the deliberative processes by legislative bodies, including discussion, debate and the acquisitionof information, be open and available for public scrutiny. (Sacramento Newspaper Guild v. Sacramento County Bd. of Suprs. (1968) 263 Cal.App.2d 41; 42 Ops.Cal.Atty.Gen. 61, 63 (1963); 32 Ops.Cal.Atty.Gen. 240 (1958).) The Act only applies to multi-member bodies such as councils, boards, commissions and committees since, unlike individual decision makers, such bodies are created for the purpose of reaching collaborative decisions through public discussion and debate.

A host of provisions combine to provide public access to the meetings of legislative bodies. For example, the times and dates of all meetings must be noticed and an agenda must be prepared providing a brief general description of all matters to be discussed or considered at the meeting. (§§ 54954, 54954.2.) As a precondition to attending the meeting, members of the public may not be asked to provide their names. (§ 54953.3.) While in attendance, members of the public may make video or audio recordings of the meeting. (§ 54953.5.) As a general rule, information given to a majority of the members of the legislative body in connection with an open meeting must be equally available to members of the public. (§ 54957.5.) Before or during consideration of each agenda item, the public must be given an opportunity to comment on the item. (§ 54954.3(a).)

All statutory references are to the Government Code except as otherwise indicated.

While the Act creates broad public access rights to the meetings of legislative bodies, it also recognizes the legitimate needs of government to conduct some of its meetings outside of the public eye. Closed session meetings are specifically defined and are limited in scope. They primarily involve personnel issues, pending litigation, labor negotiations and real property acquisitions. (§§ 54956.8, 54956.9, 54957, 54957.6.) Each closed-session meeting must be preceded by a public agenda and by an oral announcement. (§§ 54954.2, 54957.7.) When final action is taken in closed session the legislative body may be required to report on such action. (§ 54957.1.)

The following chapters contain a more detailed discussion of the persons governed by the Act, the notice and agenda requirements, access rights of the public, limitations on closed sessions and available remedies for violation of the Act.