Practicing Democracy

In order to practice democracy, we must be active participants in the day to day conduct of government. County and city commissions, committees and other advisory bodies are essential government organizations that provide avenues for public participation in local government.

Santa Cruz County Code underscores the importance of these public bodies:

“The public’s trust in their government may be sustained only as long as the public remains involved in the deliberations essential to responsible decision-making by that government. The Board of Supervisors wishes to preserve this public trust by openly seeking advice, ideas and recommendations from the citizens of the County.” SC County Code: 2.38.020

Unfortunately, as I struggle to preserve and defend what’s left of the natural world in Our Fair County, I increasingly encounter local government staff and elected representatives who are either unaware of the importance of public participation, or who choose to limit public participation in the name of expediency and efficiency.

The Ralph M. Brown Act, California Government Code Sec. 54950-54963, is one of the most important, and one of the most widely misunderstood, documents in California state, county and municipal governments governing conduct in meetings of public bodies.

54950. In enacting this chapter, the Legislature finds and declares that the public commissions, boards and councils and the other public agencies in this State exist to aid in the conduct of the people’s business. It is the intent of the law that their actions be taken openly and that their deliberations be conducted openly. The people of this State do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies which serve them. The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know. The people insist on remaining informed so that they may retain control over the instruments they have created.

Brown Act (Gov. Code Sec. 54950-54963)

The intent of the Brown Act is to insure that governmental bodies conduct their business in the full light of the public’s day, with open doors, publicly accessible meetings, and documented records of the governments’ business.

Unfortunately, not all members of advisory bodies and government staff are aware of governing legislation, such as the Brown Act, county and municipal codes, and advisory bodies’ own by-laws, that inform their conduct. This situation leaves the body open to manipulation and misdirection by staff appointed to support and serve them, whether intentional or not.

The result has been the morphing of some of these bodies from advisory and decision-making entities into rubber stamps for staff initiated programs and policies. Limitations on public participation in advisory body meetings stills the public’s voice and discourages the public’s duty to monitor and comment on the course of government activities.

For example, the County Department of Parks, Open Space and Cultural Services provides staff support to the County Parks and Recreation Commission, as directed by County Code:

2.70.040 Organization and procedures.

(B) Staff Support. The Department of Parks, Open Space, and Cultural Services shall provide staff support for the Commission. The Director of the Department, or their designated representative, shall serve as the Administrative Secretary to the Commission and shall receive copies of all minutes, reports and recommendations submitted to the Board of Supervisors by the Commission.

Parks Department staff have gone beyond their legislated duties and have taken over the preparation of the Parks and Recreation Commission agendas. Among other unilateral changes, they have identified agenda items as Action Items or Information Items, even though there is nothing in County Code, the Commission’s By-Laws or the Brown Act that make this distinction. Furthermore, staff has unilaterally dictated, without consultation with Parks and Recreation Commissioners, that Commissioners may not make a motion on Information agenda items, and that public participation in Commission meetings be limited to Oral Communications at the beginning of the meeting and only on identified Action Items during the remainder of the meeting.

These limitations on public participation in Commission meetings are not found in County Code or the Commission’s By-laws, and they are directly contradictory to Section 54954.3 of the Brown Act:

54954.3 (a) Every agenda for regular meetings shall provide an opportunity for members of the public to directly address the legislative body on any item of interest to the public, before or during the legislative body’s consideration of the item, that is within the subject matter jurisdiction of the legislative bodyEvery notice for a special meeting shall provide an opportunity for members of the public to directly address the legislative body concerning any item that has been described in the notice for the meeting before or during consideration of that item.

(c) The legislative body of a local agency shall not prohibit public criticism of the policies, procedures, programs, or services of the agency, or of the acts or omissions of the legislative body. Nothing in this subdivision shall confer any privilege or protection for expression beyond that otherwise provided by law.

The County Board of Supervisors, as a body, due to lack of oversight, has allowed many of their commissions to drift from their original brief. The absence of oversight from the Board of Supervisors and municipalities has created disparities in the conduct of advisory bodies that are confusing to the public attempting to participate in the proceedings. In the interest of participatory democracy, I urge the Board of Supervisors to develop a handbook for commissioners and committee members, and support staff, that clearly delineates member and staff duties and responsibilities, public participation in meetings, and the state, county and municipal legislation that codify local government advisory body actions.

While the County Board of Supervisors and the city councils are ultimately responsible for the advisory bodies they have created, it is up to the citizenry to impress upon local government that advisory body meetings are to be conducted according to established state, county and municipal codes, and that public participation in county government must not be limited by staff fiat.

“There can be no daily democracy without daily citizenship.”
— Ralph Nader

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