Thank You League of Women Voters for a great presentation on the Brown Act

18 Mar

I’m so sorry I didn’t take my camera with me to the League of Women Voters’ “Brown Bag the Brown Act” presentation today – I’ll have to tell you about it.

I was impressed with turn-out – I counted at least 30 heads, with my eyesight, and the bobbing around, I’m guessing about 35 all together. And I didn’t count the presenters, or the women who stood at the door to greet everybody. Or the guys with the Action News camera. I am thrilled to see people – and the media! – interested in this topic. I’m so sick and tired of the “whatever” attitude that seems to be seeping into people’s heads these days.

As LWV President Jane Wanderer put it, the Brown Act is about “the public’s right to know what government is doing and why.” 

Speaker Susan Wilson moved right along in her presentation, well aware there was a speaker behind her, but wanting to be sure  everybody present got a rudimentary lesson on the BA, pointing out things she feels are important along the way. I went to a presentation by Chico City Clerk Debbie Presson, given at an early meeting of the current Sustainability Task Force, and boy was this different. I realized these rules can be interpreted.  Of course, Presson interprets them on behalf of the city council and staff, while Wilson works as “watchdog” of local government. Of course their viewpoints are going to be quite different, and I found Wilson’s presentation to be much more extensive and enlightening. 

Here’s where Wilson and Presson have a difference of “interpretation” – Wilson says these agencies “don’t have the right to decide what the public should know…“, the rules are very precise. Except in the instances of employee contract negotiations, pending litigation, and real estate transactions, which can be done in closed session, all conversations involving a majority of the board (which would be four of our city councilors) are to be reported to the public. That includes meetings, phone calls, e-mails.  

Presson seems to think she can pick and choose what is kept in the record. She’s supposed to keep complete notes of the conversations that go on in the morning meetings, which are not video taped, but I’ve caught her so many times leaving out whole conversations from the record, the public couldn’t possibly know what’s been going on with the trash franchise deal or other business the city is conducting. 

Wilson lamented that more people don’t take their government agencies to task over violations, but she admits it’s hard. She spoke about “ad hoc” committees – “a way people sort of skittle around the edges [of the Brown Act]...trying to avoid involving the public…”  The Sustainability Task Force, as well as the Economic Development Committee, have gone just about completely ad hoc, avoiding even having to notice their meetings to the public. When I tried to get on the notice list for  the STF, committee chair Mark Stemen told me he’d have to do it himself because the city wouldn’t give him any staff.  But if you watch the agendas, you see council receives regular reports and recommendations from the STF, and has recently dedicated staff time to a new website.

I feel the city of Chico pushes the public back by the forehead all the time.  The rules are simple, and as you guessed – the city of Chico is not compliant with a lot of this stuff. Like, they’re supposed to be specific in the agendas, so you know what the discussion is.  We used to get reports on the website for the various items – now we get “Finance Report”, and something like, “Frank Fields will give an update on our finances…” That’s all they had at that last meeting – but then the newspaper comes out with the story about the $4.8 million they found laying around – why wasn’t that in the agenda? Why wasn’t Frank’s report attached to the agenda? Instead we get “verbal report.” 

And, we can demand any of those reports or documents received by council at those meetings, but they get out of that by saying, “oh, we have no idea who will come to these meetings, or how many…” And, if you ask for copies, Presson can charge for them, and has.

I had to leave with the end of Wilson’s presentation, I had to get a corned beef on the stove for dinner.  I am sorry I missed Tim Crews’ presentation, I’m guessing he talked about his adventures getting public documents out of people like Debbie Presson.  Crews is a great advocate for Sunshine. 

But these people can work and slave for this law, and if the public is not paying attention, all the Sunshine in the world will not change anything. The Brown Act, as somebody remarked, is a tool – like a hammer or a screw driver, it’s useless unless you pick it up and use it. 

Thanks to the League of Women Voters for having this presentation. If you’d like to support this type of event, they will be having a fundraiser,  an evening of  wine, beer and olive oil tasting, with “gourmet appetizers”, at Manzanita Place on April 19. Tickets are on sale now – $35 advance, $40 at the door. Find out more here:




4 Responses to “Thank You League of Women Voters for a great presentation on the Brown Act”

  1. Michael Jones March 18, 2015 at 6:14 pm #

    Yes, watch those “verbal reports” by the City manager or finance people. Also, they add addendums at the last minute with some pretty juicy stuff in hit. I didn’t support the card room downtown, but staff did an addendum with a printout from a webpage in which the proponent was acting unsavory…I’ll bet he never found out they gave it to Council. They are our employees; we gotta keep an eye on them, even if they behave most of the time.

    • Juanita Sumner March 19, 2015 at 5:02 am #

      Thanks for your part in keeping the light on Michael.

  2. Jane Wanderer March 19, 2015 at 6:06 am #

    Dear Ms. Sumner,
    Thank you for your blog posting on our recent Brown Act meeting as well as the earlier encouragement you gave your readers to attend it. I think you would have enjoyed Tim Crews’ portion of the presentations as well as Susan Morris-Wilson’s. They both are such knowledgeable and strong advocates.
    Also, the plug for our April 19th Annual Wine Tasting is certainly appreciated. Hope to see you there!
    We’d love to have you join us at future League events and you might even consider becoming a member at some point. We share the need for transparency in government.

    Jane Wanderer, President. League of Women Voters of Butte County

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