In 1958, the Los Angeles Times sued the California Board of Education for holding secret meetings. The Times won that case, and a new law reformed the process for public meetings and decision-making in all state boards and commissions.
The 1967 Bagley-Keene Open Meetings Act states, “It is the public policy of the state that public agencies exist to aid in the conduct of the people’s business and the proceedings of public agencies be conducted openly so that the public may remain informed.” The act requires that these bodies publicly notice their meetings, release agendas, allow the public to attend and accept testimony.
Now state Sen. John Laird, D-Monterey, seeks to restrict the public’s ability to attend these meetings in person.
His bill, SB 544, would change the Bagley-Keene Act to allow these government bodies to hold half their meetings remotely. There would be a staff member in a room where the public can attend and listen to a speakerphone — no video. No way to see if members are even still listening or simply on mute going about their day.
In California, state boards and commissions exercise tremendous power. Some subject to the law include the California Public Utilities Commission, the Coastal Commission, the California Air Resources Board, CalOSHA and the Commission on Peace Officers Standards and Training.
Members of the public have the right to attend the meetings of these powerful regulators, to know in advance what’s on the agenda, and to speak directly to the commission members. In-person meetings allow reporters to interview members of the public who have brought their concerns before these bodies and ask questions of powerful regulators.
In-person meetings are indispensable for the public to have their voices heard and for news gathering. When the CPUC discusses how to implement new income-based fixed charges for electricity, or when the Air Resources Board puts forward new regulations for rideshare companies, or when POST begins decertifying law enforcement officers, the public has the right and the need to know what’s happening.
SB 544 is an outgrowth of the pandemic when Gov. Gavin Newsom signed an executive order suspending many of the provisions of Bagley-Keene Act. The emergency is over, but many of the commissions and boards want to make remote meetings a permanent part of state governance.
People’s lives are greatly impacted by the decisions of these powerful governing bodies. It is not acceptable to have board members and commissioners shielded from in-person public comment, emotional testimony or protests. Remote meetings begin and end with a click and they are simply a façade of public access without actually providing it.
SB 544 would require that only half of a government body’s meetings must be in-person. Tough or controversial decisions would show up during the remote meetings, leaving the public outside looking in, speaking into a microphone without any assurance that anyone is listening.
The bill lacks basic guardrails, including those from a similar bill that died last year. Rather than building on that proposal, SB 544 has continued to move through the Legislature without much improvement, despite concerns expressed by legislators and a unlikely coalition of groups that agree on transparency.
California should expand access to public meetings and allow the public the opportunity to participate remotely, but that’s very different than allowing the members of boards and commissions to phone it in.
SB 544 is a step backward into the days before reforms, when powerful board members and commissioners talked amongst themselves and made deals out of public view. The technology may be new, but the intentions are very old.
Brittney Barsotti is general counsel for the California News Publishers Association. Scott Kaufman is the legislative director for the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association. They wrote this commentary for CalMatters.
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