Open government laws prohibit online official discussions, but they've happened anyway
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Forget smoke-filled rooms and paper shredders today's government officials can elude public scrutiny from the comfort of their own e-mail accounts, conducting virtual meetings to do the public's business.
To curb such activity, provisions in both the Brown Act (the state law governing open meetings) and the San Francisco Sunshine Ordinance have been interpreted as prohibiting the use of electronic communication between members of policy bodies. But not everyone has been heeding the rules, particularly in this hyperconnected age.
The TechConnect Task Force, a now disbanded advisory body charged by Mayor Gavin Newsom with creating a plan to bridge the city's digital divide with free wireless Internet service, frequently used an e-mail listserv to conduct its business.
"Since these things were publicly posted right away, I should think there would be a transparency that advocates would like," said Emy Tseng, a member of the task force. "It was useful in the way e-mails and listservs are useful to anyone."
However, many contend the task force was engaging in activities prohibited under the city's Sunshine Ordinance, even if the intent was to provide greater public access to the group's work. Tseng, who claims to have never been informed by the City Attorney's Office that the group might have been in violation of Sunshine laws, expressed the frustrations of many throughout the city who must comply with open-meeting policies.
"If you don't use e-mail in this day and age, what can you do?" she asked. The answer, according to state and local laws, is to conduct public business in a public meeting, with the agenda posted in advance and where anyone can attend.
State and city public-disclosure laws apply to all "policy bodies," which can include nearly every government-sanctioned board, commission, or task force. Some members of these bodies have been suspected of vioutf8g open-meeting and public-disclosure laws through the use of online communication.
Seriatim meetings are presumably the most common illegal activity occurring under both open-information laws, although they are the hardest to detect. A seriatim meeting occurs when one member of a policy body privately contacts another, who then contacts another, in a chain of communication that eventually constitutes a quorum of the group.
An e-mail that is forwarded along to enough individuals, or a round of mass e-mails, would constitute a seriatim meeting, according to attorneys who spoke with the Guardian. While e-mail forwarding is a common practice for any office worker, some are just an unassuming click away from breaking the law.
"I would absolutely make it clear that anybody subject to the Brown Act or Sunshine [should] not communicate through e-mail," said Thomas Burke, a San Francisco-based attorney who specializes in media and Internet law and has represented the Guardian. "This could go on for years because people are not in the loop."
The Brown Act, passed in 1953 by the California Legislature, expressly bans a legislative body from using "technological devices" in order to communicate about topics relevant to the work of that body.
"The Brown Act itself forbids the majority of 'technological devices' which is essentially anything you could imagine," said Terry Francke, director of Californians Aware, who also drafted amendments to the act in the early '90s. Under the Brown Act, a committee member can be slapped with a misdemeanor for the intent to withhold information from the public or conduct prohibited meetings.
Many of the same issues are also addressed in the San Francisco Sunshine Ordinance, filling in more restrictions and open information requirements. Ironically, the TechConnect Task Force was charged with creating universal access to online discussions like theirs, although few legal experts think even that would nullify the requirement for open, public meetings in a physical rather than virtual setting.
According to a report released by the San Francisco TechConnect Task Force, 32 percent of Americans do not have access to the Internet. In San Francisco, certain populations are even worse off compared to national averages for instance, women and the elderly.
"You have to consider if people are going to have equal access to meetings," Burke told the Guardian. "There is still a digital divide. As a public entity they have to be sensitive to this."
Recently, members of the city's Peak Oil Task Force inquired with the City Attorney's office about using Yahoo! Groups or a blog to increase efficiency on the all volunteer committee. Attorneys advised the group to stay away from Internet communication, as it can easily lead to prohibited seriatim meetings. Jeanne Rosenmeier, who is the chairperson of the task force, now spends more committee time trying to determine alternative ways to engage the public.
"It is certainly something that should be rewritten, to deal with modern technology so it corresponds with today's reality," Rosenmeier told the Guardian. "If we have a public e-mail listserv that anyone can sign on to, that seems transparent; or if we have a blog, that's pretty transparent."
In other cities that do not have sunshine ordinances, teleconferencing may be used legally under the Brown Act to conduct meetings. In Los Angeles, for instance, some boards and commissions teleconference when members would need to drive a few hours just to meet. There is some speculation that the language of the Brown Act could be augmented under this provision to allow for online communication, but there are no major groups pursuing the amendment.
In 2001, former California Attorney General Bill Lockyer wrote an opinion declaring the use of e-mail between policy-body members as an infraction of the Brown Act, even if the e-mails were made publicly available. "Members of the public who do not have Internet access would be unable to monitor the deliberations as they occur," the opinion states. "All debate concerning an agenda item could well be over before members of the public could [participate]."
According to the Sunshine Ordinance Task Force, there have been no complaints filed concerning prohibited online meetings, however there have been public information disclosures of private e-mail messages over the years. Recently, a group of deputy city attorneys were required to turn over an e-mail correspondence when a member of the public filed a complaint.
While Peter Scheer, director of the California First Amendment Coalition, understands the frustration of government officials who must abide by the cumbersome laws, he thinks the tradeoff is well worth it.
"The whole rest of society uses the power of e-mail and the only business that can't use it is government, because they're subject to the Brown Act," Scheer told the Guardian. "But we made the tradeoff already in efficiency versus accountability, to force all meetings and information to be open to the press and public."