The Ralph M. Brown Act states that “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.”

The Brown Act has many rules, stipulations, and exceptions.  In fact, it is a rather complex legislative document that covers a broad range of entities.  Not all quasi-governmental agencies are covered by the Brown Act but, according to ACLB Executive Director Joan Van Hooten, the ACLB is “subject to the Brown Act.”

What, then, are the rules that the ACLB may be in violation of?  There are two main areas of concern:  The timely public posting of board meeting agendas, and public comments in board meetings.

Justin Hectus, President of the ACLB board, said, “We take our responsibility to the public and the city very seriously, and we have been speaking with the City Attorney’s office to find out what we need to do to comply with the letter of the Brown Act.”

The rules related to the posting of agendas is addressed in Section 54954.2 (a), which states, “At least 72 hours before a regular meeting, the legislative body of the local agency, or its designee, shall post an agenda containing a brief general description of each item of business to be transacted or discussed at the meeting, including items to be discussed in closed session.”  The Brown Act does not provide any exception to this requirement for regularly scheduled meetings.

According to members of the ACLB board, the agenda for the last meeting was made public less than 72 hours before the meeting.  In examining printed agendas from previous meetings, there is no way to tell when, exactly, they were created or made public.

Antonio Pedro Ruiz, a current board member, said, “In June of 2006, while a member of the Executive Committee, I made a request to Joan Van Hooten to find out what the Arts Council’s obligations were under the Brown Act.  In July, she made a verbal report based on information from the City Attorney’s office, and I was told that a practice of posting board meeting agendas on the door of the Arts Council office was initiated.”

The second area of concern is addressed in Section 54954.3 (a), which states, “Every agenda for regular meetings shall provide an opportunity for members of the public to directly address the legislative body on any item of interest to the public, before or during the legislative body’s consideration of the item.”

Chief Assistant City Attorney Heather Mahood, in an interview, said that, under the Brown Act, “The public must be afforded the knowledge that they have the right to speak to specific agenda items.”  Additionally, the agenda must provide an opportunity for public comment on non-agenda items.  This did not take place in the meeting I attended.  In the agendas I examined for the last 6 months, no public comment provision was ever included.  According to Mahood, the 72-hour posting requirement and public comment rules also apply to all general board and standing committee meetings.

The penalty or consequence for being in breach of the Brown Act is, at the least, a potential invalidation of any decision made during such meetings.  In Section 54959, the Act includes the following:

“Each member of a legislative body who attends a meeting of that legislative body where action is taken in violation of any provision of this chapter, and where the member intends to deprive the public of information to which the member knows or has reason to know the public is entitled under this chapter, is guilty of a misdemeanor.”

Intent is hard to prove but Chief City Attorney Mahood confirmed that she sent a standard letter titled “The Brown Act: Avoiding The Pitfalls” to Joan Van Hooten in 2006 in response to the Executive Committee’s request for clarification.  Van Hooten stated that she did not recall receiving the document, “Although I remember having met personally with Heather Mahood to discuss aspects of the Brown Act.”  The letter, a copy of which I received from the City Attorney’s office, speaks directly to many of these issues.

Other municipal entities, such as the Long Beach Redevelopment Agency, have incorporated the ideals of the Brown Act into its mission.  According to Victoria R. Ballesteros, Communications Officer for the RDA, part of the Redevelopment Agency’s mission is “to encourage citizen participation.  Therefore the RDA’s public noticing and outreach not only ensure legal compliance with the Brown Act, but also further our mission of engaging the community in our work to the greatest extent possible.”

Mick Victor, who served on the board in 2005, commented, “The Arts Council has struggled to represent the people, and the arts, fairly in Long Beach.  Nonetheless, they do not invite nearly enough comment from the community.  They spend so much time struggling to keep afloat, and in dealing with their own issues, that they simply don’t think to invite people from the outside.”

“It is equally the obligation of arts community,” Ruiz observed, “From our large organizations to individual arts, to demand accountability from the Arts Council.”

The ACLB has since begun to implement changes in its practices to more fully adhere to the Brown Act.

The ACLB board meetings are open to the public.  For information about upcoming meetings, and to request copies of past and future agendas, and minutes from past committee and board meetings, you can reach the ACLB by phone at 562-432-5100.