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Provisions to protect against terrorism erode open meetings laws

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Provisions to protect against terrorism erode open meetings laws

  • New legislation increases government secrecy but Gov. Gray Davis wants more public access curtailed to protect California from terrorist attacks.

Feb. 14, 2003 — Three amendments, which went into effect Jan. 1, weaken California’s open meetings laws. They affect both the Brown Act, which requires local government business to be conducted in public, and the Bagley-Keene Open Meetings Act, which requires that state government business be conducted openly to ensure the public is informed.

Open records advocates worry that even more restrictive legislation may be introduced.

The last day for new bills to be sent to the legislature in California is Feb.21, although “placeholder” bills lacking final language may be submitted, said Tom Newton, general counsel for the California Newspaper Publishers Association.

One amendment to the Brown Act changes the time required for media notification of an emergency meeting by a local legislative body from one hour before the meeting to “at or near the time that the presiding officer or designee notifies the members of the emergency meeting.”

It applies to meetings called when “prompt action” is required to discuss interruption or threatened interruption of public facilities by a “crippling disaster” or “work stoppage or other activity, which could severely impair public health, safety or both.” It also allows closed meetings in a “dire emergency,” a new exception.

A second Brown Act amendment allows local councils, boards and commissions to hold closed meetings with the attorney general, district attorney, sheriff, chief of police or their deputies to discuss a “threat to the safety and delivery of essential public service, including water, drinking water, wastewater treatment, natural gas service and electronic services.”

Previously, such closings were allowed only for discussions of the security of public buildings or the public’s right of access to public services and public facilities.

An amendment to the Bagley-Keene Act permits state bodies to close meetings, if two-thirds of the members agree, during discussions of criminal threats to state-owned property when disclosure of those discussions could threaten the safety of those who work within that property. Electronic data is specifically identified as “state-owned property.”

The body must report publicly on the general nature of the discussion immediately following the closure. This law will expire after three years.

Representatives from the CNPA and the California First Amendment Coalition met with Davis’s staff to discuss his office’s concerns that the new laws have not done enough to prevent access to security discussions and that public records laws might allow disclosure of potential terrorist targets, Newton said.

The CNPA and CFAC contend that it is doubtful terrorists would sue for public records, that exemptions already in place allow for protection of sensitive information and that new proposals would make it more difficult for the public to gain information they need for safety reasons.

KD


© 2003 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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