A&A: Charter board meetings flout Brown Act rules

Q: Can Charter Boards hold special meetings, with limited notice on just any subject? Can they go into closed session and report out publicly that no action was taken, then order the CEO to do what was decided in the closed session? Can a vote be taken to approve signature of a disclosure filing that contains conflict of interest information and then the board president refuse to sign it in a timely fashion?

A: Addressing your questions in turn:

First, with respect to noticing public meetings under the Brown Act, the Act provides that the agenda for any regular public meeting governed by the Act must be posted at least 72 hours before the legislative body’s meeting, and should contain a “brief general description of each item of business to be transacted or discussed at the meeting, including items to be discussed in closed session.

A brief general description of an item generally need not exceed 20 words. The agenda shall specify the time and location of the regular meeting and shall be posted in a location that is freely accessible to members of the public.” Gov’t Code section 54954.2(a).

Special meetings may be called under the Act by the presiding officer of the legislative body, or by a majority of the members of the legislative body, but only upon 24 hours notice to each local newspaper of general circulation, radio station or television station that has, in writing, requested notice. Gov’t Code § 54956.

Additionally, the call and notice must be posted at least 24 hours prior to the special meeting in a location that is freely accessible to members of the public. Id. The Act is silent on what topics special meetings may cover; however, only the business specified for discussion at the special meeting may be addressed. Id.

The Brown Act authorizes closed sessions to be held under several circumstances:

…to confer with legal counsel to receive advice regarding anticipated or pending litigation (Gov’t Code §54956.9);

to meet with specific law enforcement officials on matters posing a threat to the security of public buildings, essential public services, or that threaten the public’s right of access to such buildings/services (Gov. Code §54957(a));

or to consider the appointment, employment, evaluation of performance, discipline, etc. of a public employee or to hear complaints or charges brought against the employee by another person (Gov. Code §54957(b)).

Before holding a closed, the legislative body must, in an open and public meeting, identify the item or items to be discussed in closed session.

If the information required to be disclosed is contained on the posted agenda, the disclosure can take the form of a reference to the posted agenda. In the subsequent closed session, the legislative body may consider only those matters covered in this statement. Gov’t Code §54957.7.

You may want to review the various circumstances under which closed sessions may be held, which are contained in the sections 54956.7 – 54957.8 of the Government Code.

As for reporting out, the Act embraces the idea that action taken in permissible closed sessions should, in most circumstances, be reported to the public as soon as the action is taken, unless disclosure would threaten th e reason for allowing the closed session int he first place (e.g., it might prejudice the agency in a lawsuit). See Gov’t Code § 54957.1.

As for the fourth issue you identified — where members voted to take certain action, but then the board president refuses to take that action — this sounds like a matter that might be best addressed by reviewing the board’s bylaws.

The bylaws may provide some insight into alternative mechanisms to enacting the board’s vote if the presiding board member refuses to carry out those wishes.

Holme Roberts & Owen LLP is general counsel for the First Amendment Coalition and responds to FAC hotline inquiries. In responding to these inquiries, we can give general information regarding open government and speech issues but cannot provide specific legal advice or representation.