A&A: Budget committee meets behind closed doors

Q: Our county budget committee meets behind closed doors and keeps no written records of meetings. County staff says it’s OK because the budget committee is an ad hoc committee. They say they can designate ANY committee as an ad hoc committee and meet behind closed doors.

A: Government Code section 54952(b) contains the definition of agencies that are covered by the Brown Act:

“A commission, committee, board or other body of a local agency, whether permanent or temporary, decision-making or advisory, created by charter, ordinance , resolution or formal action of a legislative body.

However, advisory committees, composed solely of the members of the legislative body that are less than a quorum of the legislative body are not legislative bodies, except that standing committees of a legislative body, irrespective of their composition,which have a continuing subject matter jurisdiction, or a meeting schedule fixed by charter, ordinance or formal action of a legislative body are legislative bodies for the purposes of this chapter.”

The less-than-quorum-committees that are not the “standing committees” are often called “ad hoc committees.”

It can often be quite difficult to distinguish between standing committees and ad hoc committees. But there is some guidance:

1. Method of creation: How was the committee created. If it was created by “formal action,” it is subject to the Brown Act. A covered board thus directing a sub-quorum of its members to meet with others will usually satisfy that requirement. Joiner v. City of Sebastopol, 125 Cal. App. 3d 799 (1981).

2. Make-up of the committee: If the committee is wholly composed of members of a covered body, then it may not be a standing committee. However, if it has outside members, it necessarily be a standing committee.

3. Meeting schedule: if its meeting schedule is regular and fixed by a covered board, then the committee will be a standing committee.

4. Scope of authority: The California Attorney General has written (at 79 Ops. Cal. Atty.Gen 69 (1996)) that “standing committee” is commonly defined as “a committee to consider subjects of a particular class arising during a stated period.” “Subject matter” as used above mean “matter presented for authority” and “jurisdiction” means “power, right or authority to hear a cause.”

Importantly, it does not matter what the committee or the agency creating it has labeled it. The test is one of substance and function, not form. So an agency does not have the power to effectively designate a committee as an ad hoc committee if it the committee is functioning as a standing committee.

Holme Roberts & Owen LLP is general counsel for the First AmendmentCoalition 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.