Gov. Jerry Brown might be one of the nation's most progressive and outspoken governors, but he can't seem to go a day lately without reigniting concerns about government transparency.
Brown signed a bill into law Monday that will block public access to his meetings with local officials on public security issues, a move critics say allows the governor to have secret policy discussions over controversial public safety initiatives like prison realignment.
Last week, Brown was poised to sign legislation that would have let local government agencies opt out of key sections of the California Public Records Act before public outcry forced him and lawmakers to abandon the plan. Now, open government advocates are concerned about a bill moving forward that would exempt a task force investigating construction concerns with the new Bay Bridge eastern span from open-meeting and public-record laws.
"I think anyone who knows about his record and his actions has very low expectations of him as an advocate for transparent government," said Terry Francke, general counsel of the open-government nonprofit Californians Aware.
Francke noted that Brown, during his first run as governor more than 30 years ago, "vetoed a bill that would've guaranteed access to basic blotter information from police and sheriff offices," and Brown's staffers removed or destroyed public records as he finished two terms as Oakland's mayor in 2007, a story first reported in this newspaper.
Evan Westrup, Brown's spokesman, fired back Monday with a list of bills Brown has signed to increase transparency in the state's higher education systems, elections, and legislative bodies. He also noted Brown wrote the Political Reform Act of 1974, which put California at the forefront of ethics, disclosure and campaign-finance laws.
Brown on Monday signed AB 246 by Assemblyman Steven Bradford, D-Inglewood, adding the governor to a list of those with whom city and county leaders can meet in secret to discuss "public security issues" under the state's Ralph M. Brown Act public-meetings law.
"The Brown Act recognizes the need for elected bodies to meet in closed session on matters affecting public security," Westrup said late Monday afternoon. The bill ensures the same provisions for the governor that already apply to the attorney general, district attorneys, police chiefs, sheriffs and security consultants, he said.
The Assembly passed the bill 69-5 in April, and the state Senate passed it 32-4 early this month. Assemblywoman Joan Buchanan, D-Alamo, was one of the few to oppose it.
"The governor should have to follow the Brown Act just like anybody else," she said Monday. "I think it potentially opens the door to making a deal behind closed doors when the discussion should be in public."
Los Angeles County sought this bill after its supervisors met with Brown behind closed doors in 2011 to discuss his prison realignment plan, in which low-level offenders are kept in county jails instead of state prisons. Realignment was and still is controversial, yet Brown's meetings with local officials can now be held out of the public's view if they're said to involve matters "posing a threat to the security of public buildings, a threat to the security of essential public services, including water, drinking water, wastewater treatment, natural gas service and electric service, or a threat to the public's right of access to public services or public facilities."
Buchanan said why that 2011 meeting "could not have been in public is beyond me, I don't understand."
"The realignment discussion back then was really a policy discussion," she said. "It was not really what I would call an urgent public safety issue -- there was no imminent threat there."
The 2011 meeting was said to be "to consider threats to public access to public facilities," Francke said -- an exemption added to the open-meetings law in the 1980s to deal with sit-ins, bomb threats and other actions against government property.
"It seems evident to many people that he knew the closed session was in violation of the Brown Act," Francke said. "There is no closed session for discussing realignment or anything like it, so the posted reason for the meeting was fraudulent, and there never was at the time any reason for a governor to come into any closed session."
Westrup on Monday cited a legislative analysis of AB 246, which said the bill doesn't deal specifically with whether realignment is the kind of subject appropriate for closed meetings -- it merely adds the governor to the public security exemption.
The state Senate passed a budget trailer bill Monday that continues state reimbursements to local government agencies for compliance with the Public Records Act. Brown and lawmakers had been ready to reduce some of that law's key requirements to nothing more than recommended best practices if local governments didn't want to foot those bills themselves.
The Assembly Judiciary Committee on Tuesday will consider SB 110 by state Sen. Mark DeSaulnier, D-Concord, which would exempt a new "East Span, San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge Safety Review Task Force" from state open-meeting and public-records laws. DeSaulnier likens the task force to an extension of Legislative Analyst's Office staff research, which is typically not available for public consumption until the work is finished.