Parents who live in the state of California should be aware of their rights under the Brown Act (the “Act”). The Act, which was passed by the California Legislature, guarantees the right of the public to attend and participate in meetings that are held by local legislative bodies. School boards and other educational bodies fall into this category, so they must therefore allow the public to attend and participate in their meetings. The Brown Act is located in sections 54950 to 54962 of the California Government Code, and it is often referred to as the “open meeting act.”
Why does this matter to parents? The Act ensures their right to take an active part in the education of their children. While participation in organizations like the PTA can help keep parents informed of events at their children’s schools, attending meetings that are held by local school boards and other organizations allows them to stay abreast of important changes that can affect their children’s education in the district in which they reside. Without the passage of the Brown Act, school boards and other bodies could hold undisclosed, impromptu, informal meetings thereby leaving parents and the general public out of the loop.
Secret meetings are problematic for a number of reasons. Most notably, they may be conducted to avoid public scrutiny regarding controversial or unpopular topics. For parents who like to stay informed about developments in local public education, this poses many serious problems.
Some argue that it is nearly impossible to enforce the Brown Act. Violation of the Act is considered a misdemeanor, but how are secret meetings supposed to be detected? Proponents argue that the mere threat of being charged with a misdemeanor is enough to prompt most legislative bodies to obey the law.
Under the terms of the Brown Act, at least 72 hours of advance notice must be given for a regular meeting, and the agenda must be posted publicly. Minutes must be taken and made available to the public. At least 24 hours of advance notice must be given for a special meeting, and the agenda must be posted at least 24 hours ahead of time. Only items listed on the agenda may be discussed. In the case of an emergency meeting, one-hour notice must be provided by phone to local media outlets, and only items that are listed on the disclosed agenda may be discussed.
Closed sessions are permitted for cases involving pending litigation, personnel matters, labor negotiations, public security and real estate negotiations. They may also be conducted for matters regarding student discipline, but the body must vote and take subsequent action publicly.
By understanding the Brown Act, parents can protect their right to take active, informed roles in their childrens’ educations.
Both lauded and maligned—and perhaps occasionally violated—the Brown Act has been an integral part of California politics for over half a century. The Ralph M. Brown Act, often referred to as California’s “open meetings law,” was first passed in 1953 to ensure that work of publicly elected bodies was done openly and transparently. It also remains one of the most confusing pieces of legislation, particularly for “amateur” politicians such as school board members, because of its non-obvious provisions and multiple exemptions.
The California School Boards Association’s annual conference has multiple sessions every year devoted to explaining the Brown Act to school board members (and CSBA publishes a 63-page book to explain the law), but even attorneys specializing in the area disagree on the application of some of the law’s provisions, particularly in the modern era.
The intent of the law is clear and largely not in dispute: Public bodies should not deliberate behind closed doors but rather allow the public to witness their “thinking process” in how they come to decisions. The law centers on provisions stating that a majority of the members of any elected body must deliberate in public with an agenda that is posted and available publicly in advance of such meeting. There are many specific requirements and some exceptions (including for matters such as litigation, collective bargaining, and student discipline), but practically it means that I, as a member of a five-person school board, cannot meet with two or more colleagues behind closed doors to discuss policy. This would, by its nature, hide the deliberations of a majority of a body which has the power to make public policy.
The act also prohibits “serial meetings,” deliberations that happen asynchronously by person A talking to person B, then B talking to C, etc., or A becoming a “hub” by separately talking to B and C. One of the more confusing provisions (particularly for members of the public) prohibits elected officials from discussing in a public meeting items not included on the posted agenda. For example, members of the public may comment during a meeting on any topic that wasn’t on that meeting’s agenda, but a board member cannot substantively respond to that comment—this would effectively create a “back-door” way to add a topic to a public meeting without giving notice to the community that such topic would be discussed.
The main problem with the Brown Act is that it was created in an era where communication vehicles were much more limited and it was easier to hide from the public eye. In 1953, only about half of U.S. households owned a television (and only a bit more than that even owned a phone), therefore as a practical matter the only way the public could interact with their elected officials was through these periodic in-person meetings. Of course, the world has changed, and the advancement of communication technology has allowed us to craft policy leveraging these communication vehicles while actually advancing the spirit of the Brown Act.
The essence of the Brown Act is to ensure transparency and openness but also update it to recognize that school boards (and other elected bodies) have the opportunity to leverage multiple communications tools, including social media, in a very powerful way that would actually increase community involvement and transparency. Most Brown Act attorneys advise school boards that it is not allowed for a school board member to phone in to a board meeting (while they are traveling, say) unless they post the agenda where they are located and make it accessible to the public.
Compared to the tense nature of litigation, mediation offers a valuable tool for alternative methods of dispute resolution. Mediation involves the two disputing parties getting together and discussing the issues at hand with a trained mediator guiding them through the process. There are numerous benefits to working through mediation, and many disputing parties are able to end with satisfactory outcomes.
Avoid The Lengthy Litigation
Mediation is much more flexible than a traditional lawsuit proceeding. Since many courts are backlogged, forcing more immediate criminal issues into the schedule ahead of civil matters; it can take weeks or even months for an initial hearing in a civil case. Mediation, however, can be scheduled with much more ease, since the meeting will require setting up an agreeable time with the other party and a mediator.
Make Your Own Solution
Mediation also allows the involved parties to help contribute to their own solutions in more creative ways. Rather than the win/lose atmosphere in a courtroom, a mediation room can be an open discussion between two parties. The source of the conflict can be explored in greater detail, and parties can work together rather than duke it out in front of a judge. An experienced mediator will be trained in how to maneuver around issues with high emotional stakes, and will work carefully in choosing words and tone when addressing parties in the mediation room.
Participants are actively involved when helping to generate their own outcome. The fact that mediation is centered around a calm discussion, as opposed to a bitter battle in court, allows relationships to remain civil for the duration of the process and likely the aftermath. More often than not, parties generate more creative agreements than the kind of decisions handed down in a courtroom. For the most part, as long as parties can agree to it, the final agreement may be a variation of anything they have initially wanted or thought about.
Create Better Chances of Moving Forward
Mediation looks into the future, rather than dwelling on the actions of the past. The procedure feels less threatening and pressurized than the more formal process of the court. Mediation also allows the opportunity to think about ways to prevent problems in the future, rather than sticking band-aids on past issues of dispute between the parties. The confidential nature of mediation adds a layer of privacy for parties that don’t want their issues aired publicly.
Mediation is a helpful tool for addressing disputes that provides confidentiality, flexibility, and the opportunity to reach creative and useful outcomes.
Avoid Large Legal Bills
Mediation is a much more cost-effective means of resolving disputes. Court battles can cost individuals and businesses hundreds of thousands of dollars a year and result in loss of employee productivity as well as other large expenses. However, Mediation can achieve the same or better results with significantly less expense and time. Mediation can occur before yieldy discovery battles and courtroom hearings and without the need for expert witnesses. However, even after discovery in a case has been completed, mediation is still more cost effective than a lengthy drawn out trial and other pretrial procedural motions practice.