It's been about a month since we mentioned some lawmakers' concerns that deep budget cuts could imperil the state's longstanding requirement that government organizations provide the public with fair notice of open meetings.
But as the Associated Press reminded us earlier this week, those concerns may soon be realized as discussion moves forward on Gov. Jerry Brown's proposed budget.
Many controversial cuts have made an appearance in this year's budget, but one proposal that has generated minimal fuss has been Brown's plan to suspend reimbursements to local governments for certain state mandates – among them the mandate known as the Brown Act, which requires government bodies to post information about public meetings in advance.
Local governments are only required to follow state mandates if the state reimburses them for any costs, which some have argued effectively puts local governments on the honor system when it comes to complying with open meetings laws.
"I haven't heard of any cities trying to take advantage of the loophole when it comes to the Brown Act," Dan Carrigg, legislative director with the California League of Cities, told the AP earlier this week. "But the locals are facing budget problems as well, so that's not to say that if there's a way down the road to do something more efficiently, that some city might not look at it."
Brown Act reimbursements, among others, were already effectively suspended when the Legislature opted not to fund the program in last year's budget.
But lawmakers such as state Sen. Leland Yee, D-San Francisco, have argued that if the suspension continues, its legal requirements might be considered more ambiguous. He has proposed a constitutional amendment that would protect Brown Act requirements from budget cuts.
The bill is currently in committee. It would require a two-thirds majority vote to quality for the ballot.
Brown Act reimbursements are intended to cover only the costs that local governments incur while preparing public agendas in advance of open meetings, including photocopying and staff time. Reimbursements under the program have risen to more than $16 million annually, state records show. As the AP notes, suspending the program would also let the state save $63 million in outstanding claims since 2004.
Audits conducted by the state controller's office have shown that millions of dollars in improper reimbursements have been claimed by local governments – which the state either did not notice or paid regardless.
Auditors have published 11 reviews of Brown Act reimbursements in various cities and counties since 2004, finding that upwards of a third of reimbursements submitted in those cases were claimed improperly.
|6/11/10||Contra Costa County||224,940||927,867|
|6/30/06||Los Angeles City||1,225,968||741,380|
|11/30/05||San Bernardino County||340,165||18,010|
|3/30/06||San Francisco City/County||637,930||53,656|
The problem of widely varying and oft-inaccurate reimbursement claims is well known in Sacramento. The issue even came up in Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's 2005 "California Performance Review," which was commissioned to find inefficiencies and waste in state government but ultimately failed to get much traction.
Among other problems, the report notes that, "Although the actual cost of a mandate can vary among individual local jurisdictions for legitimate reasons, local governments occasionally file claims containing widely varying costs for providing the identical, or similar, service."