A&A: How Do We Make a Community Service District Board Comply with the Brown Act?

Q: Community Service District (CSD) Board members have been in violation of the Brown Act. I have requested multiple policies, procedures and manuals from the CSD by email and verbally, and have received none. Our board members closed the Volunteer Fire Department and changed the locks without consulting our Fire Chief. No meetings dates, no agendas, nor anything about the actions of the board except for Fire Department issues are posted on the CSD website. I have also asked for financial reports for our fire department on multiple occasions by email, verbal, and meetings and have not received them. How do we make the CSD Board comply with the Brown Act?

A: The Ralph M. Brown Act, Cal. Gov. Code § 54950 et seq., requires generally that the public’s business be transacted at open public meetings, where members of the public are afforded the opportunity to speak. On the facts you have provided, we cannot say for certain whether the CSD Board has violated the Brown Act. If the CSD Board has in fact made decisions relevant to the public’s business (i.e. closing the volunteer fire department) outside the confines of an open, agendized, and public meeting, then it has likely violated the Brown Act. However, nothing in the Brown Act requires public agencies to consult with other public agencies before making a decision—any such requirement would be found in other provisions of law.

If you believe the CSD Board violated the Brown Act, then you may wish to consider filing a complaint letter or bringing a legal action, which could help you obtain judicial scrutiny of the CSD Board’s actions and even potentially void any past decisions that were taken improperly. More information about the procedures to enforce the Brown Act can be found at the First Amendment Coalition’s website here (see tab VII, “Enforcement”).

Note that the policies, procedures, and manuals of the CSD Board, as well as the financial reports you are seeking, should be made available to you by making a California Public Records Act (CPRA) request. Per the CPRA, public records — which include “any writing containing information relating to the conduct of the public’s business prepared, owned, used, or retained by any state or local agency regardless of physical form or characteristics,” Cal. Gov. Code § 6252(e) — are presumed to be open to the public and must be disclosed unless a specific provision of the Act or other law exempts them from disclosure.

When an agency receives a request for public records, it has ten days to determine whether the request seeks copies of disclosable records, and to either disclose them or cite an applicable exemption and its reasoning why that exemption applies. Cal. Gov. Code § 6253(c). If the agency fails to respond, or otherwise improperly withholds the records, you can sue to gain access to the records. Cal. Gov. Code § 6258. Note that if you sue and are successful in proving a violation of the CPRA, the Board will be responsible for paying your legal fees. Cal. Gov. Code § 6259. You may wish to remind the Board of this provision if they continue to stonewall.

More information about the CPRA, including a sample letter for drafting your request, is available at the First Amendment Coalition’s website here.

Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner 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.  No attorney-client relationship has been formed by way of this response.