A&A: Are city council subcommittees Brown Act-exempt?

Q: I am trying to get some skeleton data on a new crop of Brown Act-exempt City Council subcommittees. I requested the subcommittees’ mission statements, which I assumed were set out prior to commencement. Some have had four meetings thus far, and one as many as seven meetings.

I have not received a response regarding the composition and purpose of the subcommittees with purported need to await an absent city manager’s writing up of, or coming up with maybe city attorney-written, descriptions. Shouldn’t there have to already be a description in existence that I can and should ask the city clerk to pony up?

A: First, with respect to any purpose statement that these subcommittees operate by, there is nothing in the Brown Act that would seem to require the city to ensure that it has written descriptions of these subcommittees available for review.

That said, if the city does have any writings pertaining to these subcommittees, then presumably they would be public records under the Public Records Act, and thus must be disclosed upon request unless some exemption applies. You can find additional guidance on making a request under the Public Records Act, including a sample letter, here: Resources: Access to Records .

A second issue referenced in your email seems to be whether the Brown Act’s meeting requirements apply to these subcommittees. This depends on whether a particular subcommittee may be defined as a “legislative body.” Under the Brown Act, a “legislative body” is defined to include:

(a) the governing body of a local agency or any other local body created by state or federal statute, or any “local body” created by state or federal law;

(b) a commission, committee, board or other body of a local agency created by charter, ordinance, resolution or formal action of a legislative body; or

(c) standing committees of a legislative body that have continuing subject matter jurisdiction. Cal. Gov’t Code § 54952.

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, resolution, or formal action of a legislative body are legislative bodies for purposes of this chapter.” Cal. Gov’t Code § 54952(b).

In other words, if the committee was created by formal action, but falls under the ad hoc sub-quorum committee exemption, then the committee does not have to adhere to the Brown Act’s meeting requirements. Government Code § 54952(b).

On the other hand, if the advisory committee is a standing committee, which has:

“continuing jurisdiction” over a particular subject matter (e.g., budget, finance, legislation),

OR has a meeting schedule that is fixed by some formal action of the legislative body, then that committee is required to abide by the Brown Act’s meeting requirements. (Gov’t Code § 54952(b)).

The California Attorney General’s Office illustrates in its Brown Act publication, how § 54952(b) operates with respect to committees created by city councils.

For example, an advisory committee created by the city council that is comprised of two council members for the purpose of reviewing all issues related to parks and recreation in the city on an ongoing basis is a standing committee that is subject to the Act because it has continuing jurisdiction over issues related to parks and recreation in the city, even though its makeup includes less than a quorum of the city council.

On the other hand, if the city council creates an advisory committee comprised of two city council members for the purpose of producing a report in six months on downtown traffic congestion, such committee is exempt because it is comprised solely of less than a quorum of the members of the city council, and it is not a standing committee because it is charged with accomplishing a specific task in a short period of time.

If the subcommittees that you describe are subject to the Brown Act, then they must abide by the same meeting rules that all other legislative bodies must abide by, e.g., properly noticing meetings (Gov’t Code § 54954.2) and permitting the public to comment on matters before the legislative body (Gov’t Code § 54954.3(a)). More information on the Brown Act’s requirements may be found here: Resources: Access to Meetings .

Bryan Cave 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.