In its infinite wisdom, and with an approving nod from Gov. Jerry Brown, the state Legislature has effectively gutted a basic requirement of local government transparency in California.
The reason, of course, is money. When isn't it?
What the lawmakers have done is suspend a requirement that the state reimburse local agencies for the cost of producing and posting for public viewing meeting agendas at least 72 hours before a gavel hits a dais.
But to do that, they also suspended the fundamental requirement that governments post agendas on bulletin boards and also on websites. Right now, there is nothing to require a local government to make an agenda public before a meeting.
All that photocopying, thumb tacking and PDFing could cost the state as much as $96 million in fiscal year 2012-13. That's because California requires that the state pay for the mandates its places on local governments.
The state hasn't sent a reimbursement check in years.
Brown, though, doesn't want the IOUs piling up. The state budget is roughly $92 billion. The estimated cost of reimbursements that wouldn't be made is roughly one-tenth of 1 percent of that. But Brown said they had to go.
What remains is the sticky question of what bureaucrat will risk a full blast of public wrath and stop meeting the Brown Act's transparency requirements -- whether Brown and the Legislature have set them aside or not.
San Diegans for Open Government has sued in Superior Court questioning the constitutionality of the Legislature's actions. Californians Aware has started a petition drive to overturn the suspension. State Sen. Leland Yee, D-San Francisco, is floating a constitutional amendment to require an agenda-posting requirement regardless of who pays for it.
All are efforts worthy of support, and here's why: It is simply Pollyannaish to trust local government without documented meeting agendas. The ability to spend other people's money can do strange things to even the most well-intentioned people.
As consistent readers of this column might recall, I worked for years in the great state of New Jersey, which has more local government bodies than California, (657 cities, alone), and a law called the Open Public Meetings Act. It has loopholes big enough to drive a Tony Soprano-sized pizza truck through. Yes, it has a requirement that agendas be posted well before meetings. But get this: Meeting agendas in New Jersey can be amended at any time, even during meetings.
One of the oldest tricks in the proverbial book there is for elected officials to simply stall until everyone goes home and then, with no notice, vote to do whatever they want.
Now, we all know such things would never happen in California, but who knows what the future holds. First, the requirement to post agendas gets thrown out. Then maybe the act itself. What's to stop local officials from reverting to the types of secret meetings and backroom deals that forced the acts creation in the late '50s? Only you.
Thomas Peele is an investigative reporter for this newspaper and teaches a class on public records at UC Berkeley. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.