2 Words to Put Local Government Decisions in the Shadows

Anonymous Negotiation
| Photo coutesy of MS Images

California wants local governments to be accountable and has over 300 laws and administrative regulations that determine how city and county officials are to conduct the public's business. There's one bundle of law and regulation that directly touches the politics of everyday life in your city and mine: the Ralph M. Brown Act of 1953 (now called just the Brown Act).

The Brown Act is considerably more than California's "open meeting" law. The Brown Act is a hard test applied almost daily to the behavior of the men and women who represent us. The test's first failure, of course, is that the Brown Act doesn't apply to the Governor's office or to the state Legislature. And the related Bagley-Keene Act of 1967 (which does apply to the Legislature and its boards and commissions) has done nothing to reform the "behind closed doors" style of governance that characterizes Sacramento decision making.

The Brown Act isn't easy to accommodate to the very human dynamics of local government. Pure transparency and messy politics are incompatible. Reasonable compromise requires discussing what can be compromised without appearing in public to be compromising. City councils, special district boards, and agency commissions tug in the direction of self-protection and expediency leading toward Brown Act violations. Their legal counsel tugs them back, if only to the edge of the right side of the law.

Assemblyman Reggie Jones-Sawyer (D-Los Angeles) has a bill in the works, already approved by Assembly Local Government Committee on a five-to-one vote, that would make the Brown Act two words shorter and a lot easier to get around.

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Currently, negotiations over the "price and terms of payment for the purchase, sale, exchange, or lease" of real property can be discussed by a city council or a school district board in private before an offer is made to the property owner. It's one of the few exemptions to the "open meeting" requirements of the Brown Act.

It's a reasonable one. If you're dickering to buy property, it's best that you and your colleagues come up with an offer without the seller listening in.

In arguing for his bill, Jones-Sawyer pointed out that factors other than price are always part of a real estate deal. He told reporters that when he was director of real estate for Los Angeles, the restraints in the Brown Act often compromised the city's ability to negotiate a better deal.

The Jones-Sawyer bill would take out the two words "of payment" and permit governing bodies to go into closed session to consider everything that might be loosely described as "the terms" of a property transaction. Although it seems a slight change to an exemption that fits an occasional action for most local governments, the risks to the public are real.

The assemblyman pledges that his bill will be amended to deal with the objection that it offers a retreat from transparency, although how transparency will be preserved and still achieve what the assemblyman thought he was fixing isn't obvious to me.

If you want a predictor of which local governments are going badly wrong -- think Bell, Vernon, and the others in recent years -- start with their problems with the Brown Act. And don't give them more ways around it.

About the Author

D. J. Waldie is the author of "Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir" and "Where We Are Now: Notes from Los Angeles," among other books about the social history of Southern California. He is a contributing editor for the Los Angeles Times ...
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