A&A: Are school district “fact-finding” committee meetings public?

Q: One of the school districts I cover is considering closing a school. At first the superintendent announced they were closing a school at a board meeting, but after a huge amount of public uproar he backpedaled and said there would be public hearings before a decision is made.

The district has set up a fact-finding committee to look at things like declining enrollment numbers in the area, fiscal impact and the impact on academic programs should they close the school. It is my understanding that such a committee is an advisory committee for the district and therefore falls under the Brown Act, however at the last committee meeting the district’s public information officer tried to chase me out. The PIO and the district superintendent have also been telling parents that the committee meetings are not public and that they are not allowed to attend. Should this committee be open to the public per the Brown Act?

A: Whether the Brown Act’s meeting requirements apply to an ad hoc committee created by the District depends on whether the particular committee may be defined as a “legislative body.”  Under the Brown Act, a “legislative body” is defined to include a commission, committee, board or other body of a local agency created by charter, ordinance, resolution or formal action of a legislative body; or standing committees of a legislative body that have continuing subject matter jurisdiction. Cal. Gov’t Code § 54952(b), (c).

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) (emphasis added).

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 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 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 ad hoc committee that you describe is subject to the Brown Act, then it 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 on this website under the Open Meetings tab.

However, if this committee is not governed by the Brown Act, you should still be able to get written material generated in connection with the committee under the Public Records Act.  You can find more information about the PRA here under the Public Records tab.

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.