Bill Lynch: It’s the public’s business

Sonoma Vice Mayor Rachel Hundley recently made a point of taking her fellow city council members to task for an alleged violation of California’s Ralph M. Brown Act (“City Council Member Threatens Legal Action Over ‘Illegal’ Meeting,” Aug. 7). She was also disappointed in their tepid acknowledgment of wrongdoing.

The Sonoma vice mayor alleged a closed meeting, supposedly for labor negotiations, was really for the purpose of furloughing the city manager, an action that should have been taken in public.

The vice mayor’s disappointment appears to stem from the fact that her colleagues seemed more concerned about avoiding costly litigation on the matter than on the principle that the public has a right to know what elected officials are doing on our behalf.

That principle is summarized in the Brown Act as follows:

“In enacting this chapter, the Legislature finds and declares that the public commissions, boards and councils and the other public agencies in this State exist to aid in the conduct of the people's business. It is the intent of the law that their actions be taken openly and that their deliberations be conducted openly. 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.”

The principle was strengthened and put into the California constitution with the overwhelming passage of the “Sunshine Initiative,” Proposition 59, in 2004.

I’m encouraged that Vice Mayor Hundley is making a point of the importance of the principle, because most of the time it seems that members of the press are the only ones protecting the people’s right to know what their government is doing behind closed doors.

During my tenure as editor of the Index-Tribune, there were several times when I too was concerned that those serving on government boards and councils only grudgingly agreed to the principles of our state’s open meeting laws, rather than embracing the concept enshrined in the Brown Act, and the Sunshine Initiative.

It is understandable that meeting behind closed doors to discuss “sensitive subjects” is more comfortable. Council members can speak plainly and perhaps more candidly than they would if there was a public audience. But comfort in conducting the public’s business is not one of the luxuries afforded our government representatives.

On too many occasions members of government bodies have sought ways to keep their deliberations out of the public eye. The Brown Act and Sunshine Initiative make it clear that the principle of doing the public’s business in public is what they’re supposed to do.

So, while I agree with the four other Sonoma council members that it is important to avoid costly litigation, that’s not the main reason for acknowledging Vice Mayor Hundley Brown’s point. In her own words it is: “This was never about suing the city. This was about alerting the public to what is happening behind closed doors of its city council.”

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