The ACLU of Northern California and First Amendment Coalition filed a lawsuit against the City of Fresno and the Fresno City Council earlier this week over alleged violations of the Brown Act.
According to the ACLU of Northern California V. The City of Fresno lawsuit filed on Wednesday at Fresno County Superior Court, the ACLU alleges that the Fresno City Council budget committee meets in private away from the public. Specifically, suit adds that the budget committee is in violation of the Brown Act, a government transparency act passed in 1953 that guarantees the public’s right to attend and participate in local governmental meetings. As the budget committee doesn’t have meetings open to the public, does not allow public input, and doesn’t release agendas in advance, a lawsuit was subsequently filed.
While the budget committee meetings have been private since 2018, the COVID-19 years largely masked the situation for the early 2020. However, recent changes to the 2024 budget, including a total of 75 changes and amendments involving the shifting of around $30 million, spurred legal action.
First Amendment Coalition legal director David Loy said on Thursday that “What I understand is this committee is the effective final word on the final budget, that the final budget is often rubber stamped by the full city council and the committee is where the real work gets done. We’re disappointed that Fresno is choosing to keep its budget committee secret. The law requires the city to make Budget Committee meetings open to the public so community members are empowered to engage in the democratic process and hold their representatives accountable.”
ACLU Director of Democracy and Civic Engagement Angelica Salceda added, “Transparency and public participation in public meetings, especially those involving decisions on Fresno’s record-breaking $1.87 billion budget, are crucial for a thriving democracy. That’s why we’re suing Fresno over its secret Budget Committee.”
In addition, it has also been noted that Fresno is the only city in California with a population of 300,000 or more who keeps budget committee meetings or other local equivalents private and away from the public.
While the City of Fresno has said that they will not respond to the lawsuit because of it being pending litigation, City of Fresno attorney Andrew Janz did say in a statement that the complain “was provided to media outlets prior to the City of Fresno being served” and that the lawsuit itself is “not about transparency but rather an attempt to impose a radical unworkable process.”
Legal experts told the Globe on Friday that Fresno will likely have a difficult time defending why they need to keep budget committees private, especially since all other major Californian cities follow the Brown Act.
“This is going to be hard to defend,” explained attorney Arthur Workman. “Suits that involve the Brown Act rarely go the way cities want them to. They’re going to have to answer why Fresno is so special in that they don’t have to have public meetings. Not every meeting can be public, and the Brown Act acknowledges that. But a budget committee, when virtually every other city has theirs open to the public? They are going to need a very good excuse.”
The Fresno suit is expected to go forward into 2024.
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