Brown Act modernization legislation suffers setback

Jun 29, 2022

Efforts to modernize the Brown Act by providing flexibility for remote public meetings were dealt major blows in the Legislature last week. One bill, AB 1944 (Lee and Garcia, Cristina), was held for the year by its author and will not advance. The other, AB 2449 (Rubio, Blanca), is moving forward but took on problematic amendments.

Although current law allows for remote meetings, it imposes several requirements outside a declared state of emergency. For example, cities must post where an official is teleconferencing from, and members of the public must be allowed to participate in the meeting from the same location. This poses serious public safety concerns and discourages remote meetings.

AB 1944 and AB 2449 sought to remove this problematic provision and encourage greater participation during remote public meetings.

Both measures built off the successful, temporary, changes made in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The League of California Cities supported both bills in their original forms but moved to an opposed unless amended position for AB 2449.

What would AB 1944 have done?

Of the two, AB 1944 offered the most flexibility and would have allowed city officials to hold remote public meetings without posting their location if the city council agreed by majority vote. Cities would have been required to make a livestream of the meeting available to the public and allow for virtual public participation.

Additionally, AB 1944 would have required agendas to identify which city officials were participating remotely and for agendas to be updated if a city official decided to teleconference at the last minute. This measure would have sunset on Jan. 1, 2030.

If passed, AB 1944 would have been an important update to the Brown Act that protected local elected officials’ safety while improving the public’s access to meetings.

What could AB 2449 do?

Cal Cities originally supported AB 2449 in concept. Like AB 1944, this measure would allow local officials to hold remote public meetings without posting their location but with additional restrictions.

For example, the location would have to be open to the public and situated within the boundaries of the local agency’s jurisdiction. It would also require all officials attending the meeting remotely to participate through both audio and visual technology.

However, the bill took on additional requirements that range from unnecessarily onerous to potentially problematic. For instance, local officials would not be able to use AB 2449 to participate in remote meetings for more than three consecutive months.

The bill also includes a provision that could be read as applying language access requirements that do not currently exist for Brown Act meetings. This reference is likely to generate confusion and result in potential litigation. Unlike the rest of the bill, this section is not opt-in and would apply to all Brown Act meetings.

Cal Cities has taken an oppose unless amended position on AB 2449. Although Cal Cities appreciates the effort to provide additional flexibility and safety, the bill’s new requirements undermine its overall usefulness. Cal Cities is seeking amendments that would clarify that the bill does not add new, potentially costly, and unfunded requirements to Brown Act meetings.   

AB 2449 passed the Senate Judiciary Committee on June 28 and is moving to the Senate floor for a vote in August.

What’s next for remote meetings?

Although it is not a permanent fix, cities can still use AB 361 (Rivas, Robert) to conduct public meetings safely and transparently. Much like Gov. Gavin Newsom’s related executive orders, AB 361 allows cities to hold remote meetings without posting agendas in physical locations or making remote meeting sites accessible to the public during a declared state of emergency. The bill was signed into law last year at Cal Cities’ urging.

Cal Cities will continue to engage the Legislature and other stakeholders on reasonable and practical Brown Act modernization efforts. Even during the height of the pandemic, local officials demonstrated their ability to effectively hold remote meetings, which often resulted in increased public participation and better services.

For questions, please contact Legislative Affairs Lobbyist Johnnie Pina.