Brown Act Primer: What is a Meeting?

Brown Act PrimerIII. What is a meeting?

A. A meeting as defined by the Act includes any “congregation by a majority” of a legislative body at the same time and place to “hear, discuss, or deliberate” on any matter within the jurisdiction of the body.

    1. As the Attorney General explains: “This definition makes it clear that the body need not take any action in order for a gathering to be defined as a meeting. A gathering is a meeting if a majority of the members of the body merely receive information or discuss their views on an issue. A meeting also covers a body’s deliberations, including the consideration, analysis or debate of an issue, and any vote which may ultimately be taken.”
    2. A meeting does not have to be formally announced, agendized, or convened in order to be subject to the Act.

B. Serial meetings, either in person or by telephone or fax or go-betweens, constitute a meeting if done to “develop a collective concurrence as to action.” 

  1. For example, a series of individual telephone calls between the attorney for the redevelopment agency and the members of the agency’s governing board was held to constitute a meeting. The agency attorney had individually polled the members of the body to get their approval for a real estate transaction. The court concluded that even though the members never met together, their communications constituted a meeting for the purposes of the Act .
  2. Similarly, when the San Diego City Council directed staff to take certain action in a eminent domain proceeding in a letter signed by a quorum of the council, the court held that it had violated the Brown Act.
  3. Addressing e-mail communications, the Attorney General has opined as follows: “This office [has] concluded that a majority of a body would violate the Act if they e-mailed each other regarding current issues under the body’s jurisdiction, even if the e-mails were also sent to the secretary and chairperson of the agency, the e-mails were posted on the agency’s Internet Web site, and a printed version of each e-mail was reported at the next public meeting of the body. The opinion concluded that these safeguards were not sufficient to satisfy either the express wording of the Act or some of its purposes. Specifically, such e-mail communications would not be available to persons who do not have Internet access. Even if a person had Internet access, the deliberations on a particular issue could be completed before an interested person had an opportunity to become involved.”
  4. On the other hand, the California Supreme Court has held that a memorandum from a public body’s attorney to the members of the body did not constitute a meeting under the Act.
  5. Note that it has been held that the public body need not actually take formal action through the serial meeting in order to have conducted a “meeting” in violation of the Act. One court has concluded that the Act applies equally to the deliberations of a body and its decision to take action. The court reasoned that if a collective commitment were a necessary element, the body could conduct most or all of its deliberation behind closed doors, as long as the body did not actually reach agreement prior to consideration in public session.

C. Exempted from the definition of a meeting are:

  1. Individual contacts or conversations.
  2. Attendance of a majority of members at a conference open to the public that involves a discussion of general interest to the public or “to the public agencies of the type” attending the conference provided the members do not discuss legislative business among themselves. Fees may be charged to members of the public.
  3. Attendance by a majority of the members at an open and publicized meeting called by someone other than the legislative body to discuss
    topics of community interest.
  4. Attendance by a majority of members at an open and publicized meeting of another body of the local agency, provided the members do not discuss among themselves matters within their jurisdiction that is not the subject of the meeting.
  5. Attendance at a ceremonial or social event by a majority of members provided they do not discuss among themselves matters within their jurisdiction.
  6. The attendance of a majority of the members of a legislative body at an open and noticed meeting of a standing committee of that body, provided that the members of the legislative body who are not members of the standing committee attend only as observers.

D. The meeting must be held within the boundaries of the agency’s jurisdiction, except:

  • When necessary to comply with state or federal law, or court order.
  • To inspect real or personal property over which the agency has control, provided it is the topic of the meeting is related to the property.
  •  To participate in multi-agency meetings, provided that the meeting is properly noticed by all the agencies and that the meeting takes place in the jurisdiction of one of the agencies involved.
  • To meet with federal or state officials when a local meeting would be impractical, solely to discuss matters of relevance with such officials.
  • To meet at the closest meeting facility or the principal office of the body if there exists no meeting facility within the jurisdiction of the body.
  • To meet at a facility outside of the jurisdiction if the facility is owned by the body, provided the discussion at the meeting is limited to items directly related to the facility.
  • To visit legal counsel to discuss pending litigation, when to do so would reduce fees.
  •  School boards may meet outside of the District on a variety of labor and employment matters.
  •  Statewide joint powers authorities may meet within the territories of anyone in their organization.

E. Regular meetings must be held at a time, place, and location fixed by official action (e.g., bylaws, ordinance, resolution). If it is unsafe to meet at the designated place due to an emergency, the new location must be publicized by a notice to the local media in the most rapid means of communication available at the time.

    1. The meeting place must be accessible to all members of the public.
    2. No fees may be charged for admission to meetings.
    3. Registration of one’s name or any other condition of admission is prohibited.
    4. Cameras, both still and video, and tape recorders are permitted, and any recording of a meeting subject to the Act made at the direction of the public body is a public record.
    5. Public bodies must permit broadcast of their meetings, unless they can demonstrate that doing so would cause a persistent disruption of their proceedings.

F. Records distributed at a public meeting are public records, unless otherwise exempted under the Public Records Act.  The public is entitled to obtain them at the meeting if they were prepared by the public agency, or after the meeting if prepared by someone else. (This does not mean that the agency does not have to provide them prior to the meeting if they are available, only that it must make them available by the time of the meeting at the latest.)
G. Time must be provided for comment by the public.

  1. Public bodies may impose time limitations on public comment.
  2. Public bodies may not prohibit criticism of “the policies, procedures, programs, or services of the agency, or of the acts or omissions of the legislative body.”
  3. The ability to speak and offer criticism at the meetings of public bodies is also protected by the First Amendment. In particular, the First Amendment has been held to protect the right of citizens to criticize the conduct of particular government officials and employees at public meetings.

NOTES
16. The Brown Act, Open Meetings For Local Legislative Bodies, Office of the Attorney General, 2003, at p. 8.
17. In Sacramento Newspaper Guild v. Sacramento County Bd. of Suprs., 263 Cal. App. 2d 41 (1968), the court
held that a luncheon gathering which included five county supervisors, the county counsel, a variety of county
officers, and representatives of a union to discuss a strike which was under way against the county was a
meeting within the meaning of the Act.
18. Gov’t Code § 54952.2(b).
19. Stockton Newspapers, Inc. v. Redevelopment Agency, 171 Cal. App. 3d 95, 105 (1985).
20. Common Cause v. Stirling, 119 Cal. App. 3d 658 (1981).
21 The Brown Act, Open Meetings For Local Legislative Bodies, Office of the Attorney General, 2003, at p. 15,
citing 84 Ops. Cal. Atty. Gen. 30 (2001).
22. Roberts v. City of Palmdale, 5 Cal.4th 363, 381 (1993).
23. Frazer v. Dixon Unified School District, 18 Cal. App. 4th 781, 796-798 (1993).
24. Gov’t Code § 54952.2(c)(1).
25. Gov’t Code § 54952.2(c)(2).
26. Gov’t Code § 54952.2(c)(3).
27. Gov’t Code § 54952.2(c)(4).
28. Gov’t Code § 54952.2(c)(5).
30. Gov’t Code § 54954(c).
30. Gov’t Code § 54954(c).
31. Gov’t Code § 54954(a).
32. See generally Gov’t Code §§ 54956, 54956.5.
33 Gov’t Code §§ 54953(a), 54953.2.
34 Gov’t Code § 54953.3.
35. Gov’t Code § 54953.5.
36. Gov’t Code § 54953.6.
37. Gov’t Code § 54957.5.
38 .See Gov’t Code § 54957.5(d).
39. Gov’t Code § 54954.3(a).
40. Gov’t Code § 54954.3(b).
41. Gov’t Code § 54954.3(c).
42. Baca v. Moreno Valley Unified School Dist., 936 F. Supp. 719 (C.D. Cal. 1996); Leventhal v. Vista Unified School Dist., 973 F. Supp. 951 (S.D. Cal. 1997).

16. The Brown Act, Open Meetings For Local Legislative Bodies, Office of the Attorney General, 2003, at p. 8.
17. In Sacramento Newspaper Guild v. Sacramento County Bd. of Suprs., 263 Cal. App. 2d 41 (1968), the court held that a luncheon gathering which included five county supervisors, the county counsel, a variety of county officers, and representatives of a union to discuss a strike which was under way against the county was a meeting within the meaning of the Act.
18. Gov’t Code § 54952.2(b).
19. Stockton Newspapers, Inc. v. Redevelopment Agency, 171 Cal. App. 3d 95, 105 (1985).
20.Common Cause v. Stirling, 119 Cal. App. 3d 658 (1981).
21 The Brown Act, Open Meetings For Local Legislative Bodies, Office of the Attorney General, 2003, at p. 15, citing 84 Ops. Cal. Atty. Gen. 30 (2001).
22. Roberts v. City of Palmdale, 5 Cal.4th 363, 381 (1993).
23.Frazer v. Dixon Unified School District, 18 Cal. App. 4th 781, 796-798 (1993).
24. Gov’t Code § 54952.2(c)(1).
25. Gov’t Code § 54952.2(c)(2).
26. Gov’t Code § 54952.2(c)(3).
27. Gov’t Code § 54952.2(c)(4).
28. Gov’t Code § 54952.2(c)(5).
29. Gov’t Code § 54952.2(c)(6).
30. Gov’t Code § 54954(c).
 31. Gov’t Code § 54954(a).
32. See generally Gov’t Code §§ 54956, 54956.5.
33. Gov’t Code §§ 54953(a),54953.2.
34 Gov’t Code § 54953.3.
35. Gov’t Code § 54953.5.
36. Gov’t Code § 54953.6.
37. Gov’t Code § 54957.5.
38 .See Gov’t Code § 54957.5(d).
39. Gov’t Code § 54954.3(a).
40. Gov’t Code § 54954.3(b).
41. Gov’t Code § 54954.3(c).
42. Baca v. Moreno Valley Unified School Dist., 936 F. Supp. 719 (C.D. Cal. 1996); Leventhal v. Vista Unified School Dist., 973 F. Supp. 951 (S.D. Cal. 1997).