Reimbursement or gouging? Silicon Valley agencies lead state in asking for repayment for complying with open meetings law

By Paul Rogers
Staff writers

August 17, 2012

[This article is also posted at the web site of the San Jose Mercury News, here.]


Sparking charges that they are gouging state taxpayers, two of Silicon Valley's largest government agencies are billing Sacramento more than any other public agencies in California to be reimbursed for a routine task: preparing and posting the agendas for their public meetings.

During the past three years, Santa Clara County and the Santa Clara Valley Water District ranked Nos. 1 and 2 out of more than 600 cities, counties and districts statewide in how much they charged the state for complying with the basic requirements of California's open meetings act, known as the Brown Act, according to records in the California State Controller's Office.

While many other agencies sought to be reimbursed a flat rate -- $159 per meeting -- the two Silicon Valley agencies submitted claims for hundreds of hours of staff time, computer software, supplies and other costs, running into the millions of dollars.

"Are they inefficient or are they trying to pad their bills?" said John Roeder, president of the Silicon Valley Taxpayers' Association. "The answer may be both."

Santa Clara County, for example, sent a bill to Sacramento for $1.1 million last year to pay for the cost of writing and posting the agendas for 402 public meetings. Next door, however, Alameda County billed the state less than one-tenth that amount, charging only $71,816 to prepare even more meetings, 450.

Similarly, the Santa Clara Valley Water District asked the state to reimburse it $384,395 last year to cover the costs of preparing and posting agendas for its 42 meetings. But the Alameda County Water District billed the state a fraction -- $19,009, for nearly twice as many meetings, 70.

The two said they have done nothing wrong.

"I don't know that the other agencies have included the same kinds of activities they are entitled to," said Marty Grimes, a spokesman for the Santa Clara Valley Water District. "I can't tell you if they are doing the same things for cheaper or maybe they aren't claiming all the things the state would allow."

Gwen Mitchell, a spokeswoman for Santa Clara County, said the county has been struggling with outdated computers.

"We have had a number of old legacy systems in place for a number of years that had high operating costs," she said. "We are in the process of updating and replacing those legacy systems so the costs will be much lower in the future.''

In an obscure practice, local government is allowed to bill the state for the costs of complying with public meetings laws because of a series of legal and political rulings.

They originated in 1979, when voters passed Proposition 4, a ballot measure that forced the state to reimburse local government whenever it requires a new program.

Seven years later, the state strengthened California's open meetings law, the Brown Act, and required that all city councils, county boards of supervisors and other government agencies post agendas 72 hours before they meet. A few cities claimed that was a new mandate, and a low-profile agency, the Commission on State Mandates, agreed, saying the state had to repay their costs to prepare and distribute agendas.

Since then, the trend has ballooned.

"It's a racket," said Terry Francke, counsel for Californians Aware, an open government group.

Last year, 609 cities, counties and special districts submitted $16 million in claims to the State Controller's Office. Francke said they should be providing the agendas free to the public and posting them on their websites, as a matter of basic good government.

Santa Clara County has been rebuffed in recent years. After auditing Santa Clara County's reimbursement requests over the past five years, state Controller John Chiang said the state will refuse to repay 85 percent of them because they sought funding for items unrelated to preparing agendas, including software costs, employee breaks and training. Chiang is currently reviewing the Santa Clara Valley Water District and may reduce the amount it can receive, said Jacob Roper, a spokesman for the controller.

"Our staff analyzes trends and looks for outliers," he said.

Last year, the Santa Clara Valley Water District charged an average of $9,152 per meeting, more than any other agency in the state. Santa Clara County charged $2,859 per meeting.

By comparison, the city of San Jose averaged $270 per meeting; Los Angeles County averaged $55; San Diego County averaged $160; Alameda County $160; San Mateo County $260; Santa Cruz County $298; and the city and county of San Francisco averaged $229. Contra Costa County wasn't included in last year's report, but it averaged $156 per meeting in 2009-10. No local government is likely to be reimbursed any time soon, however.

Citing huge deficits, the Legislature has refused to pay Brown Act reimbursements since 2005. In June, Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law a budget that suspends for three years the provision of the Brown Act requiring local government agencies to post meeting agendas. The reason: so the state doesn't have to pay the reimbursements. Brown's tax measure on the November ballot, Proposition 30, includes a section that would free the state from having to pay such reimbursements again.

Tracy Seipel contributed to this story.

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