In summary

California’s “sunshine laws,” such as the Brown Act, require public agencies to do their business publicly, but pending legislation would punch loopholes.

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has affected virtually every aspect of our lives, mostly in the negative, and one effect is disconnecting California’s public officials from their constituents.

Local and state agencies, including the Legislature, shifted meetings from in-person venues to on-line substitutes, having received permission from Gov. Gavin Newsom, in one of his many pandemic-related decrees, to ignore portions of California’s long-standing open meeting laws, such as the 1953 Ralph M. Brown Act.

In theory, digital governance is just as accessible and responsive as the physical version, but in reality it isn’t. Not only is the technology cumbersome and sometimes inoperable, but it assumes that everyone has access to computers and the internet, which is not true.

However, it appears that California’s elected officials like putting physical distance between themselves and those they serve with the power to more easily limit or even shut down public comment on the issues before them.

That’s why many local agencies are supporting legislation that would modify the Brown Act and extend their ability to meet remotely with little or no physical access to their sessions.

Their primary vehicle for that extension, Assembly Bill 1944 by Assemblyman Alex Lee, a San Jose Democrat, passed the Assembly but after receiving harsh criticism from media and civil rights groups, has seemingly stalled in a Senate committee.

“It would allow local bodies to conduct all public business from private locations — not identified, or accessible to the public, or even within the state — without need or justification,” a coalition of media, civil rights and taxpayer groups declared.

However, a more limited version of institutionalizing electronic meetings, Assembly Bill 2449 by Assemblywoman Blanca Rubio, a West Covina Democrat, also has passed the Assembly and is close to reaching the Senate floor.

Learn more about legislators mentioned in this story

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Alex Lee

State Assembly, District 25 (Milpitas)

State Assembly, District 25 (Milpitas)

District 25 Demographics

Race/Ethnicity

Latino 18%
White 20%
Asian 55%
Black 3%
Multi-race 3%

Voter Registration

Dem 48%
GOP 15%
No party 33%
Other 3%
Campaign Contributions

Asm. Alex Lee has taken at least $540,000 from the Labor sector since he was elected to the legislature. That represents 38% of his total campaign contributions.

D

Blanca Rubio

State Assembly, District 48 (West Covina)

State Assembly, District 48 (West Covina)

How she voted 2019-2020
Liberal Conservative
District 48 Demographics

Race/Ethnicity

Latino 63%
White 16%
Asian 16%
Black 2%
Multi-race 2%

Voter Registration

Dem 48%
GOP 21%
No party 25%
Other 7%
Campaign Contributions

Asm. Blanca Rubio has taken at least $754,000 from the Labor sector since she was elected to the legislature. That represents 15% of her total campaign contributions.

Another measure pending in the Senate, Assembly Bill 2647, would also amend the Brown Act to soften its requirement that written background materials for local government meetings be made available to the public on a timely basis. The bill, carried by Assemblyman Marc Levine, a San Rafael Democrat, was introduced to overturn a court ruling that posting materials on-line does not satisfy the law.

While local governments are busily trying to escape some provisions of the Brown Act, the Legislature has — somewhat sneakily — eased open meeting requirements of the Bagley-Keene Open Meeting Act, which was enacted in 1967 to extend the Brown Act’s philosophy to state agencies.

Assemblyman Bill Quirk, a Hayward Democrat, had introduced Assembly Bill 1733, to give state agencies wider authority to conduct meetings by teleconference, but the measure never moved past its first committee. Instead, a revised version of Quirk’s bill was folded into Senate Bill 189, one of the many budget trailer bills enacted and signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom late last month.

Learn more about legislators mentioned in this story

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Marc Levine

State Assembly, District 10 (San Rafael)

State Assembly, District 10 (San Rafael)

How he voted 2019-2020
Liberal Conservative
District 10 Demographics

Race/Ethnicity

Latino 21%
White 67%
Asian 5%
Black 2%
Multi-race 4%

Voter Registration

Dem 59%
GOP 15%
No party 21%
Other 5%
Campaign Contributions

Asm. Marc Levine has taken at least $875,000 from the Labor sector since he was elected to the legislature. That represents 16% of his total campaign contributions.

D

Bill Quirk

State Assembly, District 20 (Hayward)

State Assembly, District 20 (Hayward)

How he voted 2019-2020
Liberal Conservative
District 20 Demographics

Race/Ethnicity

Latino 28%
White 22%
Asian 37%
Black 7%
Multi-race 4%

Voter Registration

Dem 55%
GOP 13%
No party 27%
Other 4%
Campaign Contributions

Asm. Bill Quirk has taken at least $1.4 million from the Labor sector since he was elected to the legislature. That represents 35% of his total campaign contributions.

It was not only questionable policy but another example of misusing trailer bills to enact major policy changes that bypass the usual legislative processes, including public hearings.

These are important issues. Newsom and other Democratic politicians have been highly critical of how red states such as Florida and Texas conduct themselves but are clearly not above punching loopholes in the state’s time-honored sunshine laws.

When the Bagley-Keene Act was passed in 1967, it declared, “The people of this state do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies which serve them. The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know. The people insist on remaining informed so that they may retain control over the instruments they have created.”

Amen.

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Dan Walters has been a journalist for more than 60 years, spending all but a few of those years working for California newspapers. He began his professional career in 1960, at age 16, at the Humboldt Times...