The Ralph M. Brown Act, located at California Government Code 54950 et sec., is an act of the California State Legislature, authored by Assemblymember Ralph M. Brown and passed in 1953, that guarantees the public’s right to attend and participate in meetings of local legislative bodies.
The Brown Act, originally a 686 word statute that has grown substantially over the years, was enacted in response to mounting public concerns over informal, undisclosed meetings held by local elected officials. City councils, county boards, and other local government bodies were avoiding public scrutiny by holding secret "workshops" and "study sessions." The Brown Act solely applies to California city and county government agencies, boards, and councils. The Act has been interpreted to apply to email communication as well, leading to restrictions on the number of parties that can be copied on electronic messages. The comparable Bagley-Keene Act mandates open meetings for State government agencies.
The introduction to the Brown Act describes its purpose and intent:
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 governing bodies they have created.
The Sacramento Bee said of the act:
A law to prohibit secret meetings of official bodies, save under the most exceptional circumstances, should not be necessary. Public officers above all other persons should be imbued with the truth that their business is the public’s business and they should be the last to tolerate any attempt to keep the people from being fully informed as to what is going on in official agencies. Unfortunately, however, that is not always the case. Instances are many in which officials have contrived, deliberately and shamefully, to operate in a vacuum of secrecy.
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Supporters of the Brown Act say it still lacks enforcement, contending the law has been eroded by court decisions and government officials' efforts to block access to records. "The unfulfilled promise, I'm afraid, that 50 years has revealed, is enforcement," commented Terry Francke, of the California First Amendment Coalition, on the 50th anniversary of the bill's passage in 2003.
Some critics accuse public bodies of using provisions of the Brown Act to circumvent or thwart the Act's own intended purposes. For example, the Sacramento City Council invoked the Brown Act to delay action on an urgent matter that the citizens had brought before that body, but which was not on the Council's regular agenda (October 11, 2011). Since the matter before the Council concerned an enforcement action currently being taken by the City Manager, it was likely that a simple informal consensus and request by the Council to the City Manager would have resulted in moratorium on further enforcement until the City Council could properly take up the matter at the following meeting. Instead, the Council chose to simply inform the citizens that under the Brown Act, they were compelled to wait an additional week before any action could be taken. In another instance, the Cal Expo Board of Directors advised a citizen to take a certain matter to a subcommittee of the Board, rather than present it to the full Board as the citizen requested. The citizen did as the Board suggested, only to find that his presentation at the subcommittee exempted the matter he wished to present from further Brown Act protection. (§ 54954.3(a).) The citizen was, thereafter, prevented from re-introducing the same subject to the full Board at a later date.
Brown Act Sections
- Title and definitions
- Adjourned or continued meetings
- Closed sessions
- Documents at meetings are public
- Emergency situations
- Electronic Communications
- Public is not required to provide their name or any information
- No action or discussion shall be undertaken on any item not on the agenda
- Notice of meetings
- Open Meetings
- Penalty to deprive the public of information
- Public comment
- Public criticism allowed
- Recording the proceedings -You have the right
- Reports of closed session actions
- Special meetings
- Time limits for public testimony
- When it does apply
- When it does not apply
- Willfully interrupting a meeting
- Freedom of information law in California
- Bagley-Keene Act
- California Public Records Act
- Sunshine law
- Freedom of Information Act
- Transparency (humanities) (metaphorical term, also related to politics)
- California government and politics
- Conflict of interest
- California First Amendment Coalition
- Californians Aware
- Lockyer, Bill (2003), The Brown Act: Open Meetings for Local Legislative Bodies (PDF), Foreword, Introduction, and Table of Contents, California Attorney General, retrieved 2009-06-27
- "The Brown Act and the Perils of Electronic Communication". westerncity.com. 2011-06-01. Retrieved 2016-11-16.
- California Government Code §54960
- Sacramento Bee, October 5, 1952
- California’s sunshine law celebrates 50 years, First Amendment Center
- CFAC.org - 'Ralph M. Brown Act: California Government Code Sections 54950 et seq.'
-  full text of the Brown Act
- Brown Act Pamphlet 2003 from the California Attorney General's Office
- Link to Brown Act guide (pdf)
- Thorough discussion in the open government guide
- CFAC.org - 'California First Amendment Coalition: Protecting & Defending California's Right to Know Since 1988'
- CNPA.com[dead link] - 'Ralph M. Brown Act: 1953-2003 50th Anniversary: Brown Act and Beyond'
- Contra Costa Times - 'Brown Act backers say laws need teeth', Don Thompson (AP), Contra Costa Times (July 2, 2003)
- FAS.org - 'Project on Government Secrecy', Federation of American Scientists
- VanguardNews.com - 'The Brown Act: California Codes Government Code Section 54950-54963 (August 28, 2004)
- RCFP.org - 'The Door to Open Government in California', Duffy Carolan, Esq., Selena Poon Ontiveros, Esq., The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press