Conducting Public Meetings

Brown Act and Better Government Ordinance Requirements

Meetings of boards, committees and commissions established by the Board of Supervisors are public meetings. There are many legal requirements that must be met before a committee can convene a meeting or conduct "public business." All public business must be conducted only during open, public meetings as defined in the California Government Code (the "Brown Act") and the County's Better Government Ordinance.

Complete information about requirements of the Brown Act and BGO appears in County Counsel guidelines issued March 29, 2012 (see Appendix 9), and in the training video, "the Brown Act and the Better Government Ordinance." These resources should be consulted as often as needed to ensure that all applicable legal requirements are met.

1. Open Meeting Requirements Under California Law
As explained by County Counsel,

The term "meeting" includes any congregation of a majority of the members of a legislative body at the same time and place to hear discuss or deliberate upon any matter which is under the subject matter jurisdiction of the agency. Under this definition, face to face gatherings of a legislative body in which issues under the subject matter jurisdiction of the body are discussed, decided, or voted upon are meetings subject to the Brown Act.

In 2003 the California Attorney General wrote (in published guidelines) that,

… [t]he body need not take any action in order for a gathering to be defined as a meeting. A gathering is a meeting if a majority of the members of the body merely receive information or discuss their views on an issue. A meeting also covers a body's deliberations, including the consideration, analysis or debate of any issue, and any vote which may ultimately be taken.
2. Prohibition on Serial Meetings
The Brown Act also prohibits "serial meetings." This prohibition must be carefully observed. In 2003 the California Attorney General described serial meetings as follows:

...The Act specifically prohibits any use of direct communication, personal intermediaries, or technological devices that is employed by a majority of the members of a legislative body to develop a collective concurrence as to action to be taken. Most often, this type of meeting is conducted through a series of communications by individual members or less than a quorum groups, ultimately involving a majority of the body's members. These meetings are called serial meetings. [citation omitted, emphases added]

..."Serial meetings" can happen accidentally -- for instance, if a committee member first discusses committee business outside a public meeting, with a person (who may or may not be a committee member), who then repeats the information during a later discussion with other committee members, "ultimately involving a majority." 

In order to involve the public fully in the committee's deliberations and decisions, the committee members should avoid outside discussion among one another, or with third persons who could become "personal intermediaries," concerning items of committee business. Committee members should also avoid discussing subject matter, outside a public meeting, that may come before the committee as official business in the future.
3. Agenda Preparation and Distribution
Agenda requirements must be strictly observed in order to conduct a public meeting under California law. The specific requirements are described in detail in the training video, "The Brown Act and Better Government Ordinance," and in the detailed guidelines issued March 29, 2012 by the Office of County Counsel found in Appendix 9 of the Advisory Body Handbook, "Selected Brown Act and Better Government Ordinance Provisions."

Agenda Requirements

The following minimum requirements must be observed when an agenda is issued:

a. Agendas must be published at least 96 hours before the meeting. The 96 hour requirement under the County Better Government Ordinance is longer than the 72 hour period required under the Brown Act.  A physical copy must be posted in location "freely accessible to the public" for 96 hours.  An electronic copy must be posted on the County website for at least 96 hours.  If agendas are not posted as above, no meeting can be held.

Posting Electronic Agendas and Minutes on County Website

Committee staff should contact CCTV or the Clerk of the Board for details and guidance on how to gain access to the Meeting Center on the website, for posting meeting agendas and minutes. 

b. Each agenda must:
  • List the full name of the committee, and the specific time, date, and location of meeting.
  • Provide an opportunity for public comment before an action is taken on each item.
  • Describe each item of business to be considered in specific terms. Agenda items cannot be considered if the description on the agenda is not sufficient to identify the subject.
  • Contain information about accessibility for the disabled.
  • Provide contact information for obtaining all public documents, including staff reports or other briefings, prepared for the meeting.
c. No changes to the agenda or published supporting documents can be made after the final agenda is published.

d. Under the Better Government Ordinance staff is required to send an agenda packet to each committee member at least 96 hours in advance of the meeting (i.e. when the agenda is published). This is an important step that enables each member to review materials in order to prepare for the meeting.

Of course, no discussion of agenda items can occur among committee members before the meeting. It is a violation of the Brown Act for committee members to "deliberate" or otherwise communicate about business items, except in a public meeting that satisfies the Brown Act requirements.
4. Cancelling a Meeting
Notice of cancellation must be issued for any meeting that is cancelled after the agenda has been published, including meetings that convene but do not achieve a quorum.

Notice of Adjournment/ Cancellation:

a) Indicate that the meeting scheduled for (date) has been cancelled;

b) Provide the date, time, and location of the next meeting (if known). Also include committee contact information so that the public can contact you to obtain more information if needed.
c) Within 24 hours of adjournment, post the notice at the meeting location;

d) Distribute the notice of the adjournment to all of the committee members, and to all other parties or groups on committee’s agenda subscription list;

e) Post the Notice of Adjournment/Cancellation on the committee's website (if applicable) and on the County's website/Meeting Agendas.
5. Closed Meetings
Certain independent policy-making boards and commissions may hold closed meetings under very limited circumstances and must follow specific procedures. Advisory boards, committees, and commissions that have been established by the Board of Supervisors are not authorized to hold closed meetings.
6. Special Meetings
Special meetings require twenty-four hour public notice, and 24 hour notice to members and to all public contacts; the agenda, must include a general description of matters to be considered or discussed. Advisory bodies to the Board of Supervisors are strongly discouraged from holding special meetings.
Additional Assistance

If you have questions concerning the legal requirements for conducting public meetings which are not addressed either in the Advisory Body Handbook (including County Counsel memoranda in Appendix 9) or County training video, you should contact your committee's County staff or District Office liaison.

A Quorum is Required to Hold a Public Meeting:

A quorum must be present before the committee can consider or take any official action.

A "quorum" is defined as the minimum number of members of the committee who must be present before a meeting can be held. A quorum is usually calculated as "a majority of all seats on the committee, whether vacant or filled." (Any committee which uses any other definition of a quorum should obtain approval from the Clerk of the Board of Supervisor's Office.).

The definition of the number of members in a quorum, as well as the total number of seats on the committee, is usually specified in the committee's bylaws. A quorum is not defined as a majority of "filled" seats. 

What to do if, "No Quorum is Present":

If the minimum number of members needed to establish a quorum is not present, the meeting cannot be held, "for lack of a quorum." Similarly, if members in attendance leave a meeting, resulting in the "loss of a quorum," then the meeting must be adjourned. In these instances, official notice of cancellation or adjournment of the meeting must be posted to inform the public of the outcome. See details above under "Cancelling a Meeting."

Documentation of Committee Actions ("Minutes"):

Minutes of the previous meeting should be formally reviewed at each of the committee's meetings, revised if substantially incorrect, and approved by a vote of the committee as the official record of its activities. Final minutes of every meeting must be produced and published by every committee in "hard copy" and electronic formats.

A complete physical (printed, paper) copy of the minutes must be retained permanently in the committee's permanent records archive.

Electronic copies of the committee's minutes must be posted (like agendas) to the "Meeting Agenda Center" of the County website. 

Format of Meeting Minutes:

It is most important that the minutes accurately record the committee's official decisions and actions. Minutes should include a brief description of any motion considered (whether or not it is approved), and must record the vote taken on the motion. Votes must be recorded in the minutes using the format required in California law that is described below.

Attendance, absence, or late arrivals of committee members should be recorded in the minutes. The minutes may include the major points made during the discussion, although not all discussion is recorded. Public visitors are not required to sign in and their presence or absence at the meeting should not be included in the minutes.
Minutes must be prepared using the legally required format described below.

Legally Required Format for Recording Committee Votes:

Under California law, committees are required to use the following format (in the committee minutes) to record committee votes:

Recording votes (1):
The legislative body of a local agency shall publicly report any action taken and the vote or abstention on that action of each member present for the action.” (Government Code Sec. 54953(c)(2))
Recording votes (2):
For each vote on an agenda item, the minutes or record of actions must state how each individual board or committee member voted.
Recording votes (3):
(required format)
Use the following format to record all committee votes:

"AYES: (list last names of member voting ‘aye’)
NOES: (list last names of members voting ‘no’)
ABSENT: (list last names of members absent)
ABSTAIN: (list last names of members who abstained)"

AYES: (Washington, Kim, Madison, Garcia)
NOES: (Kennedy)
ABSENT: none
Recording votes (4):
Make the vote public by posting the adopted minutes or record of actions for each meeting in the same physical location where meeting agendas are posted, and by posting an electronic copy of the Minutes on the County's web page (in the "Meeting Center").