Actions of public agencies including local governments are everyone’s business. Therefore, laws have been written to guarantee public access to legislative bodies that govern them as well as deliberative associations between members. The Bagley-Keene Act provides access at the state level, while at the local level, the Brown Act prevails.
The term “local” includes cities, counties, school districts, municipal corporations, special districts, and other local public entities. Included in this group, city council meetings are required to be held in full view of the public with opportunities for comment. When a majority of members gather to discuss public business, that is considered a public meeting and falls under provisions of the Brown Act. Use of electronic or telephonic communications to discuss and decide as a group without holding formal meetings is a violation of the Brown Act. However, purely social or ceremonial gatherings and academic conferences or similar events would probably not be subject to restrictions.
Over the past few years, during the COVID pandemic lockdown, public meetings were allowed, under emergency proclamations, to be held virtually via video. However, as the pandemic crisis has eased, restrictions have been reduced and in-person public meetings have reemerged. There are, however, exceptions to the open meeting laws. Occasionally a “closed” meeting will be scheduled, citing codes allowing, but not requiring, the public to be excluded from deliberations. Personnel and litigation matters are among subjects covered by these provisions due to privacy and legal concerns. Agendas for closed meetings describe items to be discussed in a general way without details.
An example of a closed meeting is a recent announcement by the Fremont City Council of current litigation:
NOTICE AND AGENDA OF SPECIAL MEETING CLOSED SESSION CITY COUNCIL OF THE CITY OF FREMONT DATE: Tuesday, February 14, 2023 TIME: 6:15 p.m. LOCATION: Fremont Room, 3300 Capitol Avenue, Fremont Zoom Link: https://us06web.zoom.us/j/84577846860 Webinar ID: 845 7784 6860 CALL TO ORDER ROLL CALL PUBLIC COMMENT: Any person desiring to speak on an item listed on this Notice, may do so prior to the commencement of the closed session. The Mayor will limit the length of each presentation and each speaker may only speak once on each item. CONFERENCE WITH LEGAL COUNSEL – EXISTING LITIGATION (Government Code Section 54956.9) 1. Michael Gebhardt v. City of Fremont, Alameda County Superior Court, Case No. 22CV022860 This Special Meeting is being called by Mayor Mei
Although lawsuits can range from frivolous to extremely serious, there is a minimal amount of information to glean from the description. However, with the data provided, it is possible to unravel the nature and importance of the dispute. Court documents are often visible and open for inspection at www.alameda.courts.ca.gov/online-services/domainweb (Alameda County Superior Court charges a fee). While possible to review court documents, it is important to remember that the ultimate decision of the court may exonerate the accused of wrongdoing. That is why such matters are discussed in closed sessions, to avoid premature and prejudicial judgements.
However, an alert and active constituency should be aware and make use of all the tools available to scrutinize and hold its public officials and staff accountable for misdeeds, if any. A lawsuit is not necessarily an indication of such, but close inspection of legal proceedings is one way to assure proper functioning of your local government.