A&A: Is it a casual dinner or Brown Act violation?

Q: If 3 out of 5 school board members meet at a restaurant with a teacher or administrator for a few minutes until they noticed that I was also at the restaurant with my wife, have they violated Brown’s Act?

A: Depending on exactly what transpired, the episode you describe could be a violation the Brown Act. The Brown Act “serves to facilitate public participation in all phases of local government decision-making and to curb misuse of the democratic process by secret legislation of public bodies.” Epstein v. Hollywood Entertainment Dist. II Business Improvement Dist., 87 Cal.App.4th 862, 868 (2001).

The main purpose of the Brown Act is therefore to require the local governing bodies to conduct their deliberations and make their decisions in public, as well as give the public notice of any such meetings. Cal. Gov’t Code section 54950, 54954.2(a). The Act covers “legislative bodies,” which include commissions, committees, boards or other bodies of a local agency, “whether permanent or temporary, decision-making or advisory, created by charter, ordinance, resolution, or formal action of a legislative body.” Gov’t Code section 54952(b). Public school boards are covered by the Brown Act, so the question is whether there has been any gathering of the members of the school board that constitutes a “meeting” that is subject to the Brown Act.

Under the Brown Act, a “meeting” includes any congregation of a majority of the members of a legislative body at the same time and place to hear, discuss or deliberate upon any item that is within the subject matter jurisdiction of the legislative body or the local agency to which it pertains. Gov’t Code section 54952.2(a). Therefore, if a majority of school board members met (at a restaurant or elsewhere) to discuss school business, and did not properly notice the meeting (72 hours in advance of a regular meeting, 24 hours in advance of a “special” meeting, Gov’t Code section 54954.2(a), 54956), then that meeting was held in violation of the Brown Act. On the other hand, there is nothing that would prevent school board members from meeting at a restaurant to simply have a nice meal together, so long as no school board business is discussed.

If you determine that the Brown Act has been violated based on the above criteria, you might consider directing a letter detailing your concerns to the school board president, with ccs to the school superintendent and school attorney.

The Brown Act does not specify a particular way that a violation of the Brown Act may be cured and corrected, but presumably the legislative body could satisfy the Brown Act by disclosing what was discussed at this restaurant meeting, thereby giving the public a glimpse into the board’s thought process on a particular matter, as well as giving the public the opportunity to express its views on the board’s thoughts.

Of course, you should also demand that the school board cease holding these “unofficial” meetings of school board members that are in violation of the Brown Act, and that all future gatherings by members comply with the Brown Act.

If you are not satisfied that these meetings have ceased, and that all school board meetings are being held in compliance with the Brown Act, court action may be your only other option. Either a citizen or the district attorney may sue to compel the local agency to comply with the Brown Act; obtain a ruling that a particular practice of the local agency violates the Brown Act; or obtain a ruling that the local agency is violating the free speech rights of one or more of its members in seeking to silence that member. Gov’t Code section 54960(a). Please note, however, that the Brown Act imposes fairly strict requirements on the enforcement of the Brown Act, including deadlines for taking certain necessary actions. You might find the on the Access to Meetings information page on this website.