A&A: Utility District board member access to agenda information

Q: I am a board member at my local Public Utility District. I requested information on an agenda item and did not receive it. I submitted questions for response and was denied. During the meeting I could not get any questions answered. Do have any advice as to what I can do?

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A: The Brown Act is invoked if a “legislative body” is involved, and if a majority of the members of that particular body met and conferred about the public’s business.  Assuming the Public Utility District is a “legislative body,” a meeting of the majority of its members is subject to Brown Act requirements.

From what I gather, you are a Board member, and are concerned about the District’s failure to provide information on an agenda item, failure to respond to submitted questions, and failure to answer your questions during a regular meeting.

It also sounds like you would like additional information on certain agenda items, but you are unable to get any answers from either your fellow board members or the district staff. Unfortunately, you cannot compel anyone to speak to your questions, even if they are asked in a public forum such as a district meeting that is governed by the Brown Act.

Just as there’s a First Amendment right to speak, there’s also a First Amendment right to be silent.  That said, you might want to use the Public Records Act to request any records in the District’s possession that might be of use.  If you make a written request to the District, it must determine whether the recordings are disclosable within 10 days of your request, and “promptly notify” you, in writing, if it will make the records available, or specifically state the reasons the records are exempt from disclosure.  Gov’t Code § 6253(c).

The District must also state the estimated date and time when disclosable records will be made available.  Gov’t Code § 6253(c).  The PRA requires the District assist you in making a focused and effective request that reasonably describes identifiable records.  Gov’t Code § 6253.1.  You can find more information about the Public Records Act, including a sample request letter, on this web site: Sample CPRA Request Letter

Additionally, while a sitting board member may not have standing to sue to enforce the Brown Act (See Holbrook v. City of Santa Monica, 144 Cal. App. 4th 1242, 1259 (2006)), nothing limits your rights under the Public Records Act.  “Notwithstanding the definition of ‘member of the public’ in Section 6252, an elected member or officer of any state or local agency is entitled to access to public records of that agency on the same basis as any other person. Nothing in this section shall limit the ability of elected members or officers to access public records permitted by law in the administration of their duties.”  Gov’t Code § 6252.5.

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.