Photo: The Stockton Unified School Board of Trustees was cited for violating the Brown act by San Joaquin County School Superintendent Troy Brown. The board rectified the violations. (DUANE SANDERS/CONTRIBUTOR)
It’s a California law that has been repeatedly reported on in local media for the past several weeks.
You don’t want to be accused of breaking it if you’re a publicly funded governing body.
And if you find yourself on the wrong side of it, even if you don’t think you’ve done anything wrong — such as the predicament the Stockton Unified School District Board of Education was in recently — you should probably take action to get back on the right side.
That law is the Ralph M. Brown Act. An oft-cited open meetings law that most people don’t know too much about, yet it plays an important and pivotal role in how their lives are governed and how they know what their elected officials are up to with their money.
County Superintendent of Schools Troy Brown sent a letter last month demanding Stockton Unified “cure and correct” actions that he said violated the Brown Act. Brown accused trustees of acting illegally when they held a special meeting to approve, without public discussion, the “Resignation and Transition Agreement” of former District Superintendent John Ramirez Jr.
The letter, which was addressed to trustees and the district’s interim Superintendent Traci Miller, stated the board must correct the violation by rescinding the agreement and revoting on the matter at a regular public meeting.
How did the board find itself on the wrong side of the law? Approving what was essentially described as an “employment” contract behind closed doors.
Stockton Unified counsel and trustees denied the board had done anything wrong the first time around, but ultimately complied with Brown’s request, reaffirming Ramirez’s contract at a public meeting earlier this month.
This isn’t the first time the board has been accused of disregarding or misunderstanding the Brown Act, an issue cited in a San Joaquin County Civil Grand Jury report in 2021.
So what’s the big deal with violating this law? Let’s take a look.
What is the Brown Act?
The Ralph M. Brown Act, passed in 1953, states Californians have the right to know what elected officials work on and agree to during meetings. From 1943 to 1961, Ralph Milton Brown was a California State Assemblyman and resident of Modesto. He died in 1966.
“The Brown Act generally requires public business to be done in public, with rare exceptions, and if (an action) did not qualify for something they were allowed to do in secret, and that means (the agency has) to redo it in public,” said David Loy, Legal Director of the First Amendment Coalition.
In the law, a meeting is defined as “any congregation of a majority of the members of a legislative body at the same time and place to hear, discuss, or deliberate upon any item that is within the subject matter jurisdiction of the legislative body or the local agency to which it pertains,” according to the California Attorney General’s Office.
The Brown Act defines exceptions for certain emergency agenda requirements to be held in private, pending litigation, labor negotiations, public security and more, according to the California Attorney General’s Office’s 2003 Brown Act pamphlet.
Who does the act protect?
“The law which guarantees the public’s right to attend and participate in meetings of local legislative bodies is the Ralph M. Brown Act,” Attorney General Bill Lockyer wrote in an opening statement of the 2003 pamphlet on the act.
Information about open meeting laws is available to the public, but that doesn’t mean the Brown Act is common knowledge.
“Most of the general public has no understanding of the Brown Act because they’re not present during board meetings, so they wouldn’t really understand it,” said David Sengthay, a co-founder of Fix SUSD, founded this year in response to the district’s legal and educational woes.
“When a violation occurs, it creates a situation where decisions are being made that aren’t legal or necessarily protecting the public’s interest,” Sengthay said.
Who has to answer to the Brown Act?
Public commissions and governing bodies such as city councils, boards of supervisors, and district boards are expected to follow this law, according to The Brown Act.
Private or non-profit organizations must follow the Brown Act if “a legislative body provides some funding to a private corporation or entity and appoints one of its members to serve as a voting member of [the] entity’s board of directors,” according to the act.
A board member of Stockton Teachers Association and a sixth-grade teacher, Silvia Cantú told Stocktonia she has noticed some community members online accusing school teachers of violating the Brown act.
“I don’t think a lot of people understand (the) Brown (Act) because they’ll compare it to other professions and stuff,” Cantú said.
Cantú said community members are referring to recent Brown Act violation allegations against Stockton Unified School District board members.
“I don’t know that (the SUSD board members are) legally required to read the whole act and take a test on it. They are legally bound to follow the law. It is basic to public agency meetings and public agency governance in California,” Loy told Stocktonia.
The case states that “one Trustee” did not attend the 2021 Brown Act training by the California School Boards Association.
“Ignorance is no excuse,” Loy said.
What happens when the Brown Act is violated, and what are the consequences?
“It can be hard to learn (about an agency violating the act), but often people blow the whistle,” Loy said.
An agency can be alerted and asked to fix Brown Act violations by members of the public, members and leaders of boards, and county district attorney’s offices, Loy said.
The offending agency then has 30 days to cure and correct its violation. If the offending agency doesn’t correct its violation, then it can be sued, Loy said in an interview.
Demands to cure and correct violations must be made within 90 days of the offending action, or within 30 days if “the action was taken in an open session but in violation of section 54954.2,” according to the Brown Act.
The section states meeting agendas must contain a brief 20-word description of each matter to be considered or discussed and must be posted at least 72 hours prior to the meeting.
Superintendent Troy Brown sent his demand 84 days after the June 9 violation occurred.
Legal consequences were defined by San Joaquin County District Attorney Tori Salazar and Superintendent Troy Brown in letters to SUSD trustees regarding the June 9 closed session on Ramirez’s resignation and subsequent hiring.
Four Government Codes were cited:
- Both Salazar and Brown cited Government Code 54960.1 which would cancel the action that took place without public knowledge.
- Salazar cited Government Codes 54960, which says audio recordings must be taken during closed sessions and turned over to a clerk.
- Salazar cited Government Code 54959 which states each member found withholding public information from the public is charged with a misdemeanor.
- Brown cited, but is not limited to, Education Code 1241.5(b), according to his demand letter. This code would allow the county superintendent to conduct a review or audit if they have cause to suspect illegal fiscal practices.