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The Business of Your Local Government Agency is Your Business – a Primer on the Brown Act (Part 1)

The Ralph M. Brown Act (“Brown Act”), which is found in the California Government Code beginning at Section 54950, requires public agencies to conduct their business at open and public meetings.

The legislative intent behind the Brown Act is a great reminder that our local governmental entities are created to serve us, the people living within the jurisdiction of those entities. In enacting the Brown Act, the legislature 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.

Clearly the current trend towards transparency is rooted in America’s tradition of a government for the people by the people.

Under the Brown Act, “meetings” of members of legislative bodies (the members of the agency elected or appointed to make decisions and enact laws for the public entity) must be conducted openly. A meeting is defined as a gathering of a quorum (majority) of the legislative body to hear, discuss, or deliberate upon any item that is within the subject matter jurisdiction of the legislative body.

Therefore, if a city council consists of five members, any time three or more members gather to discuss city business, the council must comply with the rules of the Brown Act. The Brown Act does allow members of a legislative body to meet without the public’s participation under limited circumstances. Examples of items that may be discussed in closed session include: pending or anticipated litigation, real estate or labor negotiations, and public security matters. This is known as meeting in “closed session.” The purpose of a closed session is to avoid revealing confidential, prejudicial or private information to the public.

The Brown Act requires members of the public be given an opportunity to speak at public meetings. The public must be given an opportunity to comment on any item on the agenda before the legislative body acts on that item. In addition, the public may comment on any other matter as long as it is within the subject matter jurisdiction of the public agency.

Members of the public are generally not required to provide their names and addresses before being allowed to address the legislative body; however, such information assists the agency in preparing minutes and allows the agency to follow-up on matters of public concern.

The Brown Act also has notice and agenda requirements, which will be discussed in Part 2.

Heather K. Whitham