Q: I attended a fire board meeting tonight where the preliminary budget was on the agenda. They had the budget in a binder on the table. They claimed that providing the budget in that way met the requirement to have the document “available” to the public. If I wanted my own copy I had to pay 20 cents a page. I told them that they were wrong and that hard copies needed to be provided to the public without charge.
Also they did not provide the document to the public in advance of the meeting even though the board members got the document prior to the meeting, so this was the first that the public got to see it.
I am following the budget process at several fire districts. At another one, I was told that I would have to pay 25 cents a page to receive the agenda packet which I would have to pick up at their office. They didn’t do mailing or email. I don’t think that is right either.
A: The answer to your inquiry involves the Brown Act, which, as you probably know, is California’s Open Meeting Law. The Act requires that the agenda 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).
The Act also provides that “[a]ny person may request that a copy of the agenda, or a copy of all the documents constituting the agenda packet, of any meeting of a legislative body be mailed to that person.” Gov’t Code § 54954.1. This section further provides that the legislative body “may establish a fee for mailing the agenda or agenda packet, which fee shall not exceed the cost of providing the service.” Id.
To the extent that the fire board wanted to charge you for copies of the agenda, it does not appear that this would be prohibited under the Act, so long as the charges are reasonable.
With respect to the proposed budget, it sounds like you would have liked to see a copy of it before the meeting. The budget may have been included in the board’s packet provided to members, which, under the Act, should be “made available upon request without delay” to requesting members of the public. Gov’t Code § 54957.5(a) (“Notwithstanding Section 6255 or any other provisions of law, agendas of public meetings and any other writings, when distributed to all, or a majority of all, of the members of a legislative body of a local agency by any person in connection with a matter subject to discussion or consideration at an open meeting of the body, are disclosable public records under the California Public Records Act … and shall be made available upon request without delay”).
The Act further provides:
“If a writing that is a public record under subdivision (a), and that relates to an agenda item for an open session of a regular meeting of the legislative body of a local agency, is distributed less than 72 hours prior to that meeting, the writing shall be made available for public inspection pursuant to paragraph (2) at the time the writing is distributed to all, or a majority of all, of the members of the body.” Gov’t Code section 54957.5(b)(1).
Paragraph (2) requires that
“A local agency shall make any writing described in paragraph (1) available for public inspection at a public office or location that the agency shall designate for this purpose. Each local agency shall list the address of this office or location on the agendas for all meetings of the legislative body of that agency. The local agency also may post the writing on the local agency’s Internet Web site in a position and manner that makes it clear that the writing relates to an agenda item for an upcoming meeting.” Gov’t Code section 54957.5(b)(2).
“Writings that are public records under subdivision (a) and that are distributed during a public meeting shall be made available for public inspection at the meeting if prepared by the local agency or a member of its legislative body, or after the meeting if prepared by some other person.” Gov’t Code section 54957.5(c)
The Act specifically provides that the local agency may charge a fee for a copy of a Public Record pursuant to Gov’t Code section 6253. Gov’t Code section 54957.5(d).
If the proposed budget was ready and available before the meeting, and in the hands of the board members, then it should also have been made available for your inspection, if not for you to copy. If the proposed budget was available less than 72 hours before the meeting, then it sounds like the board should have posted the budget on its website (where you could view and download the document at your own expense).
If the board saw the proposed budget for the first time at the meeting, then it sounds like the board was only required to make the document available for public inspection at the meeting, though you, of course, should be able to obtain a copy of the proposed budget under the Public Records Act, which is what it sounds like was offered to you.
There does not appear to be anything in the Act that would require that free copies of the budget be made available at or before the meeting (except to the extent the board was required to post the budget online, under certain circumstances).
Under the PRA, a legislative body is entitled to recover “direct cost of duplication,” or a statutory fee if applicable. Gov’t Code § 6253(a). “Direct costs of duplication” means “the cost of running the copying machine, and conceivably also the expense for the person operating it,” but does not include “the ancillary tasks necessarily associated with the retrieval, inspection and handling of the file from which the copy is extracted.” North County Parents Organization for Children with Special Needs v. Dep’t of Ed., 23 Cal. App. 4th 144 (1994).