Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Keeping the Public's Business Public

Periodically it is said that government needs to run more like the business sector. This statement is normally made in the context of financial or operational issues. While there are many excellent business practices that can and should be incorporated into the running of government, the simple truth of the matter is that government can not operate like a business because of its need to conduct business openly and in public.

Imagine walking into the board meeting of a major corporation such as Coca-Cola or Apple Computer. If you were not an invited participant to the meeting, you would be immediately escorted out of the building because businesses do not operate under the principles of public scrutiny. This is not the case for government, however. Not only is there an expectation of open access in government, but there is also a legal requirement that government must conduct its business in full view of the public and not behind closed doors.

With a few exceptions, the Brown Act requires all actions taken by the governing board of a government organization to take place in public and be documented in a public record that can be viewed and scrutinized by anyone. Those few exceptions that can be dealt with in closed session are personnel issues, property negotiations, and litigation. Even for those exceptions, decisions that result in agreements, contracts and board actions must be disclosed publicly.

Operating in such a fish bowl environment can make the accomplishment of government business both difficult and time consuming. Though admittedly not efficient, this concession of efficiency is necessary to prevent both the perceived and actual influence of political deal making. Governing board members, such as the City Council, are not only precluded from taking action in private, they are also precluded from discussing city issues with a majority of members from their board.

The Fontana Mayor and City Council go to great lengths to live within the confines of the Brown Act. For example, area community meetings, where City issues are discussed, are generally not attended by a majority of members from the City Council. When more than two City Council members show up to these public meetings, all City Council members in attendance refrain from talking about or participating in a presentation of City issues. This can be very frustrating on the part of the elected leadership, but it is the right thing to do to remain compliant with the Brown Act. You may also often see City Council members sitting apart from eachother at luncheons and other events just to avoid the appearance of violation of the Brown Act.

The Brown Act not only prevents business from being conducted in private, it also precludes what are called serial meetings between a majority of the City Council Members. This means that if Councilmember A discusses an issue of city business with Councilmember B, that neither Councilmember A nor Councilmember B can discuss that same topic with any other member on the City Council, unless it takes place during an agendized public meeting.

The Brown Act is specifically designed to preclude political deals from being made behind the scenes, but even more importantly, it allows for the public to participate in the policy discussion before a vote may be taken on an issue.

The Mayor and City Council hold City Council meetings because they are truly interested in the opinions of the members of this community and do not want to come to a consensus decision until after all those interested in speaking on an issue have had the opportunity to be heard. Dissention that leads to an honest and forth right discussion of the issues is a good thing for government because it helps all involved to make well informed policy decisions.

It certainly happens that people may disagree with a decision made by the City Council. As long as both sides of an issue have a fair opportunity to voice their opinions, the process has worked. While you may disagree with the result of the decision made, you should not have disagreement with the process. Open meetings, though not business-like, are important to the success of any government organization and the Brown Act is one of those laws designed to benefit the needs of any community or individual we serve.