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The Ralph M. Brown Act, also known as the Brown Act, is a piece of legislation that was enacted by the California State Legislature in the United States (U.S.) in 1953. It was that state's first sunshine law, which are U.S. laws governing the freedom of information and a citizen's right to access government information—many countries around the world have similar information laws. The Brown Act limits local legislative bodies from holding meetings without public participation and attendance. This includes all California city and county boards, commissions, councils and committees; it also applies to all elected or appointed members serving on these panels. The Brown Act does not, however, have jurisdiction over state governing bodies; the similar Bagley-Keene Open Meeting Act of 1967 protects the public's rights on this level.
While local governing boards are required to hold open meetings, there are times when members need closed forums to discuss specific agenda items, such as personnel issues, real property acquisitions, labor negotiations and pending litigation. The Brown Act cannot be cited during these times. However, each closed session where these issues are discussed must be preceded by a public agenda. Action taken during a closed meeting must made public afterward, according to this mandate.
Under this sunshine law, the governing agency must give at least a three-day notice of any regular public meeting, a one-day notice of a special meeting and a one-hour notice for an emergency meeting. The agenda must be posted or mailed to those who request it during this time period as well. The act also requires that the media be notified of these meetings, which are required to be held within the city or county's jurisdiction.
Those attending are not required to sign in under this law, and they are allowed to address the governing agency on any pertinent issues that were not addressed at earlier meetings. All sessions must be recorded; recordings can be destroyed after 30 days. The public, including the media, has the right to inspect these recordings as well as any documents that were presented during the open meeting.
If an individual or member of the media feels that the Brown Act has been violated, he or she can contact the governing body in question or its attorney. If that doesn't work, a complaint can be filed with the district attorney forcing the governing body to release any and all information that was discussed behind closed doors. If found to have violated the law, the said group may also be forced to release recordings from the session and any action taken during the private session can be considered null and void.
The Brown Act was written and put into effect during a time when there was growing concern over the secret meetings or workshops held by local governing councils in California. Ralph M. Brown served as a California assemblyman from 1943 to 1961, at which time he resigned to accept a post on the California Court of Appeals.