Don’t let public officials hide from their constituents

In the early 1950s, local elected officials often conducted public business in private. Members of a city council, for example, would hash out decisions in advance and then merely formalize them, often without discussion, at an open meeting.

News reports on this secretive behavior led Assemblyman Ralph M. Brown to author California’s open-meeting statute for local government. The Brown Act, signed into law by Gov. Earl Warren in 1953, has repeatedly been amended since to address unanticipated issues and evolving technology.

But the guiding principle has remained: Government boards must conduct most of their business in public meetings. Now that principle is being tested by two bills that passed the state Assembly last month and will soon be heard in the Senate.

One is especially trouble. AB 1944 — introduced by Assemblyman Alex Lee, D-San Jose, and backed by Sens. Josh Becker, D-Menlo Park, and Dave Cortese, D-San Jose — is a poorly crafted legal justification for elected officials to hide at home away from constituents and journalists. State senators should reject it.

The other, AB 2449 introduced by Assemblywoman Blanca Rubio, D-Baldwin Park, could, with amendment, provide a reasonable way for public representatives to use today’s technology to participate remotely in limited and necessary circumstances. It merits consideration if changes protect the public-accessibility principle of the Brown Act.

At issue is how to integrate video conferencing into the Brown Act. During the pandemic, we saw that government can function with remote meetings. Video conferencing has even allowed public participation and comment by residents unable to travel to attend meetings.

But video conferencing should not become an excuse for public board members to avoid constituents. During the pandemic remote meetings, important interactions in the local government decision-making process were lost.

Community groups were unable to demonstrate the size of their support by the number of people they turned out; the public and the media could not approach board members and staff before and after meetings with questions; and the nuanced interchanges between elected officials as they hash out policy compromises were hidden from public view. There were also the technical glitches and officials who hid by turning off their cameras.

Video meetings are a workable stopgap during a pandemic, but they lack the transparency that comes with in-person gatherings. Yet, the Lee bill would allow board members without limit to participate from home or another remote location — and without offering explanation.

In contrast, the Rubio bill would place a three-month limit on board members participating remotely — and require a public explanation. The three-month limit is too much and needs to be shortened.

That said, Brown Act changes should accommodate people, including board members, with health issues, disabilities or immunity concerns that make attending public meetings difficult or risky. And they should provide flexibility when public health concerns necessitate remote meetings.

But, as much as possible, they should preserve in-person meetings to maximize transparency and protect public participation. Legislators should respect the principles Assemblyman Brown codified seven decades ago.

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