The High Price of Open Meetings

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The state of California has reimbursed local governments for certain mandatory programs it requires since 1979. Until recently, that meant cities, counties and special districts that did the good government thing—preparing agendas, reporting on closed-session decisions and providing documents to the public under the Ralph M. Brown Act—were  reimbursed by the state for their efforts.

Governor Jerry Brown’s stressed-out budget suspended the payments in June, but the state is still accepting claims for reimbursement from local entities and paying off old ones. Last year, Santa Clara County and the Santa Clara Valley Water District ranked 1st and 2nd in the state in reimbursements. By a lot.

Santa Clara County wants $1.1 million for posting 402 agendas ($2,859 per meeting) and the water district asked for $384,395 to cover costs for 42 meetings ($9,152 per meeting), according to the San Jose Mercury News. They have been 1-2 in the state for three years running.

Not everyone chooses to compute their costs that way.

Many cities, counties and special districts charge the state a flat fee of $159 per meeting, and last year the total amount of reimbursement claims submitted to the Office of the State Controller came to $16 million. Los Angeles County averages $55 per meeting, San Diego County $160 and San Jose $270.

A year ago, the state Controller reviewed Santa Clara County’s record of submissions over a five-year period between July 1, 2005, and June 30, 2010, and rejected 85% of its claims. The bulk of the $5.6 million claim was tossed out “primarily because the county claimed non-mandate-related costs.” The controller essentially rejected the amount that had been billed hourly (including software costs, employee breaks and training), and substituted a flat rate.

“Our staff analyzes trends and looks for outliers,” Controller spokesman Jacob Roper told the Mercury News.

The state has not been very consistent over the years in making reimbursements to local governments for Brown Act expenses. It owes them about $97 million. Governor Brown’s tax initiative, Proposition 30, on November’s ballot permanently ends all reimbursements.

Many municipalities have indicated they will continue to execute the Brown Act’s provisions. Legal experts say they still have civil liability for lawsuits and don’t have much choice.  

–Ken Broder


To Learn More:

Reimbursement or Gouging? Silicon Valley Agencies Lead State in Asking for Repayment for Complying with Open Meetings Law (by Paul Rogers, San Jose Mercury News)

California Pays High Price for Localities to Post Meeting Agendas (by Chris Megerian, Los Angeles Times)

A Review of Santa Clara County (State Controller’s Office) (pdf)

Audit Shows Overbilling for Open-Meetings Law (by Juliet Williams, Associated Press)           

Non-Education Mandates and the 2012-13 State Budget (Legislative Analyst’s Office) (pdf)

City to Honor Brown Act (by Christine Burkhart, Porterville Recorder)

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