Understanding the Brown Act

Gerrie Schipske

Here’s more on the ABCs of Local Government. How to use the law to make city government accountable!

Understanding the Brown Act

Gov. Code § 54950, The Ralph M. Brown Act states:

“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.” This means city governmental meetings must be “open and public,” and that action taken in violation of open meetings laws may be voided. 

The key provisions of the act include:

1. Agendas must be posted at least 72 hours in advance or less for “special meetings” or “emergency meetings.” The city posts the agenda on-line and at the libraries.

2. Votes must be public – NO secret ballots. NO serial voting – this occurs when either in person or by text, telephone, fax or go-betweens, a meeting is done to discuss public business, regardless of whether the group actually forms a consensus.

3. “Sign in” cannot be required to attend, though sign in may be required for members of the public wishing to speak.

4. You are allowed to make audio and video recordings of meetings, so long as recording is not “disruptive.”

5. If the agency records its own meetings, you are entitled to view/listen to that recording.

6. Closed sessions: allowed, but only for limited, specific reasons that must be stated on the meeting agenda. These limited, specific reasons include to:

Confer with its negotiator to grant authority regarding the price and terms of payment for the purchase, sale, exchange, or lease of real property.

Confer with, or receive advice from, its legal counsel regarding pending litigation when discussion in open session concerning those matters would prejudice the position of the local agency in the litigation.

Meet with the Attorney General, district attorney, agency counsel, sheriff, or chief of police, or their respective deputies, or a security consultant or a security operations manager, on matters posing a threat to the security of public buildings, a threat to the security of essential public services, or a threat to the public’s right of access to public services or public facilities.

Consider the appointment, employment, evaluation of performance, discipline, or dismissal of a public employee or to hear complaints or charges brought against the employee by another person or employee.

Meet with the local agency’s designated representatives regarding the salaries, salary schedules, or fringe benefits of its represented and unrepresented employees, and, for represented employees, any other matter within the statutorily provided scope of representation.

7. The agency must treat all documents distributed to all or a majority of members as public and make them available unless they are exempt under the Public Records Act.

Your rights to speak at the public meeting are protected by the Brown Act and the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

You have the right to address the body in real time during the meeting. They cannot require that you submit written comment in advance of the meeting.

You have a right to speak about any item before or during consideration of that item.

You can speak about topics not on the agenda but the body cannot discuss or act on non-agenda topics.

Comments can be limited to content or topic.

Comments can be limited as to time & manner – usual time for speaking is 1-3 minutes.

What to do if you think the City Council has violated the Brown Act:

Complain to the City Attorney. (But keep in mind the City Attorney represents the City Council.)

Complain to Los Angeles County District Attorney’s office, which has enforcement power.

Ask a court to declare a body’s action void (ex. if open meeting requirement violated, not properly noticed, etc.).

Bring a lawsuit to declare a violation has occurred or stop the city from repeating certain violations, such as unlawful restriction on public comment.

Before a lawsuit is filed, a “cure and correct” or “cease and desist” letter is required (any person can submit). Often, using the letter will get the attention of the city to correct the problem. (Link here to a sample letter prepared by The First Amendment Coalition: https://firstamendmentcoalition.org/open-meetings/template-for-brown-act...

For more information on the Brown Act, download the Brown Act Primer: https://firstamendmentcoalition.org/facs-brown-act-primer/

Fun Facts

The Brown Act came about as a result of a series of columns written in 1952 by Michael Harris, a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle. His columns were titled “Your Secret Government” and exposed county supervisors, council members and school boards in the San Francisco area.

The law was initially written with the assistance of the League of California Cities, the California Newspaper Publishers Association and Assemblyman Ralph Brown. It received support from both political parties and was signed into law in 1953.

The initial law was only 2-1/2 pages. Today, it is almost 50 pages.

The last update to the Brown Act was signed into on September 16, 2021, amends Government Code section 54953 to provide authority and specific requirements for public agencies to hold virtual meetings during a proclaimed state of emergency and remain in compliance with the Brown Act (Gov. Code §§ 54950 et seq.). If no such emergency exists, the public agency does not have to provide virtual meetings.


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