Phoning It In: California’s “Sunshine” Open Meeting Laws Transition to Virtual Reality in the Face of COVID-19

Newmeyer Dillion
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Recently, Governor Newsom relaxed certain open meeting requirements under California’s “sunshine” laws, which generally require that any meeting of the majority of a public decision-making body (i.e., city council) be open and accessible to the public. Per Governor Newsom’s Executive Order Nos. N-25-20, N-29-20, and N-35-20 state and local bodies may now hold public meetings via teleconference, i.e., Zoom. The notice requirements have also been slightly relaxed, although agencies are still urged to comply with the existing timing requirements as much as possible.

As is often the case, California’s open meeting laws are uniquely robust. For most state boards and commissions, the Bagley-Keene Open Meeting Act controls. The Ralph M. Brown Act governs at a local level (where planning decisions are made). Essentially, both require that public officials deliberate and make decisions openly, in an accessible forum, with advance notice and a meaningful opportunity for public comment.

While some say open meeting laws increase transparency and encourage engagement, others see procedural hurdles that frustrate the decision-making process. Regardless of your stake in the debate, compliance becomes infeasible in times of crisis that require quarantine and quick decision-making. On one hand, open meetings would be prohibited social gatherings. On the other, necessary state and local bodies must be able to make decisions regarding critical infrastructure and other essential functions.

The tensions of transparency have already disrupted the status quo; now, we are just playing catch-up. In the days, weeks, and potentially months ahead, do not wait for your regularly-scheduled programming. Be proactive and adaptive. Ask for information regarding the content and format of future meetings. The times are changing and they did not ask for our permission. Be prepared to participate in this new virtual reality, coming to a city council near you.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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