How Specific Must A Local Legislative Body’s Agenda Be In Order To Comply With The Ralph M. Brown Act?

On October 25, 2016, the California Court of Appeal decided San Diegans for Open Government v. City of Oceanside. At issue was whether the City of Oceanside (“City”) had complied with the Ralph M. Brown Act’s requirements regarding the contents of a local legislative body’s published agenda. (See Government Code § 54954.2, subd. (a).) The appellate court determined that the City had complied, providing a summary of what the Brown Act requires in order for an agenda to withstand such a legal challenge.

The Brown Act requires that the agenda of a regular meeting of a local legislative body (including boards of K-12 and community college districts) be posted 72 hours before the start of the meeting and contain “a brief general description of each item of business to be transacted or discussed at the meeting, including items to be discussed in closed session. A brief general description need not exceed 20 words.” (Government Code § 54954.2, subd. (a).)

Relying on several Court of Appeal decisions, the Court explained that an agenda must give the public more than a mere “clue” as to what a local legislative body intends to do at an upcoming meeting. (Moreno v. City of King (2005) 127 Cal.App.4th 17, 27.) However, a challenge to a local legislative body’s agenda cannot be “hypertechnical” or elevate form over substance. (Castaic Lake Water Agency v. Newhall County Water District (2015) 238 Cal.App.4th 1196, 1207.)

The Court further clarified that the fact that an agenda could have been more informative is not enough to amount to a Brown Act violation: “[T]o date, the Legislature has not required such detail or precision in local agency agendas; rather,…the statute only requires a ‘brief general description,’ which the cases in turn have determined only requires a fair notice of the essential nature of what an agency will consider.” (Relying on Carlson v. Paradise Unified School District (1971) 18 Cal.App.3d 196, 200.) It is “an elastic standard,” and the Brown Act is not violated in instances where “an agenda…was not in any sense confusing, misleading or unfairly opaque.”

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