Last month, California lawmakers approved a $92.1 billion FY2013 budget. Governor Jerry Brown vetoed $195 million in spending, including $91.3 million from the general fund and $66.8 million from special funds, although the final cuts are much smaller than in the spending plan initially proposed by the Governor. As social services advocates and k-12 schools prepared to fight for funding, local governments seemed oblivious to the possible cuts to their reimbursements. One such cut is impacting Marin County where lawmakers requested a measly $61,957 to cover costs associated with implementing a vital open and accessible government law, in operation since for nearly 60 years, and were summarily rejected. The end result? Toss funding, toss transparency.
Passed in 1952, the Ralph M. Brown Act (Brown Act) spearheaded the government transparency movement in California by requiring local legislative bodies to post an agenda 72 hours prior to a public meeting. Specifically, the act requires, “ a brief general description of an item generally not exceed 20 words. The agenda shall specify the time and location of the regular meeting and shall be posted in a location that is freely accessible to members of the public.” Since 1952, Marin County lawmakers implemented the law using reimbursement funds from the state.
Preparing a 20-word document within five-working days seems manageable enough, even cost-effective, but according to California, the reimbursement for implementing the transparency law is neither. Unfortunately for Californians, Proposition 1A requires that such implementation is cost effective, and the decision-maker is the state.
Prop 1A (Protection of Local Government Revenues) passed in California in 2004, with overwhelming public support (83.6% voted yes). The proposition prevents the State from taking and using local tax dollars for other purposes, a seemingly reasonable requirement. Practically, however, it allows California to do exactly that; the State may suspend the legislative mandates in order to keep from funding them. This provision effectively allows California to use money originally intended for local legislative mandates—a 60-year-old transparency law—on whatever they choose by simply suspending whatever local mandate needs the cash.
In this case, California is suspending implementation of the Brown Act at the local level, in addition to 56 additional mandates, that purportedly save the state $96 million, money it can use at its discretion. For implementation in Marin County, the cost is just $61,957.
Adding insult to injury, Governor Brown’s spokeswoman, Elizabeth Ashford, stated, “Our expectation is that local governments will continue doing people’s business in a transparent manner.” The statement simultaneously discounts the valid, necessary interest in maintaining a transparent government, and makes a sweeping assumption that Californians should trust their government to “do the right thing” and continue transparency initiatives absent both the requirement and funding to do so. For Californians, it is especially hard to swallow, considering the government they “trust” is currently $612,054,955,000 in debt.