One of this session’s legislative bills Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed last month was Assembly Bill 194 that would have amended the Brown Act, California’s Open Government law. His veto does not in any way change California case law regarding the Brown Act requirements, according to Jim Ewert, California Newspaper Publishers Association general counsel.
The bill did not create new law in California. Its provisions would merely codify existing California case law as to what the Brown Act already requires, Ewert added.
AB 194, which Assemblywoman Nora Campos (D-San Jose) introduced, was to clarify some confusion about citizen speech at public meetings. Her proposal would have prohibited the presiding officer or staff of a local agency from corralling speakers at the beginning or end of a meeting to speak on an item instead of allowing them to comment at the time the agency is discussing or deliberating on a particular issue.
For example, the act requires an agenda for a regular meeting to 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 that item.
The amendment specifies that the public may speak to the body both before and during the legislative body’s consideration of the item.
Another part of the amendment ensured that if the body has limits on the speaker’s time, this limit may not be consumed with questioning or interrupting of the speaker by the legislative body, its officers or employees. The speaker’s response to any questioning will not reduce the total time allocated for public testimony on the particular issue or allocated for an individual speaker.
While this has been an issue at several larger public bodies, Hill Brown Act bodies have always implemented the law in a manner similar to the intention of Campos’ bill, as already determined by California courts.
California’s largest urban counties opposed the bill primarily because of their requirement that speakers file cards at the beginning to the public meeting requesting to speak.
“This provision is troubling to our counties, who often receive hundreds of members of the public that attend meetings and want to comment. Without notice or letting the body know of their desire to speak there is the concern that this could result in the ability for the public to continue to ask to speak with no limitations allowed,” Jolena Voorhis, executive director of the Urban Counties Caucus, wrote Campos in early August.
Another part of the amendment made it clear that criticism of the legislative body may be directed at the body, its officers or its employees acting in their official capacity.
CNPA supported the bill. It expressed disappointment that Brown vetoed legislation that would address the problem of speakers being increasingly prohibited from speaking at meetings based on their criticism of an agency’s policies or employees or because of the speaker’s viewpoint.
In his veto statement, Brown wrote, “California has robust policies and longstanding laws in place that promote an open and transparent government and guarantee public decision making. This bill adds certain procedures to the Brown Act, which at best will elongate but in no way enhance the quality of debate at the local level.”
Los Angeles County specifically said it would support AB 194 if it were amended to “clarify that members of the public wishing to speak, provide notice up to the time the item is being considered.”