Although a little-noticed provision of the state budget suspends an open-meeting law for city councils and other elected bodies, many local officeholders say they will continue to post an agenda three days before any meeting, stick to that agenda and allow public testimony.
Budget-writers suspended the open-meeting law for a year as a cost-saving measure. A recent study indicated that it would cost the state more than $2 million annually to reimburse local governments for the cost of complying with the law, although some critics contend it actually would cost much less.
"I have heard it said that it would save millions of dollars, but I don't see how," said Tustin Mayor Richard B. Edgar. "I mean, how much time does it take for an individual to take a piece of paper and put it on a bulletin board? Practically nothing. And what is the cost of letting people speak at a public meeting? Nothing that I can see."
Public interest groups and newspaper editorialists are furious about the move, saying it will allow local lawmakers to conduct shady, back-room dealings.
"We think it's a disaster for open meetings at the local level," said Ruth Holton, a lobbyist for Common Cause. "There are unscrupulous local agencies that will no doubt be delighted now to hold meetings without the public's knowledge and without public comment."
Laguna Beach Mayor Lida Lenney agreed: "This measure cuts at the heart of the democratic process."
Officials in a number of Orange County cities said they intend to follow the provisions of the now-suspended law. Many said they posted agendas and allowed public comment before it was required and will continue to do so, even though it is no longer a mandate.
Citing the importance of community involvement in local government, the Huntington Beach City Council unanimously passed a resolution last week to continue posting agendas and listening to public comment.
"We're pretty used to the current procedures," Huntington Beach Mayor Tom Mays said. "As long as I'm mayor, we'll continue to have public comments. It's very important to have community input in local government and it's important to have agenda postings."
The Tustin City Council will consider such a resolution at its next meeting and officials in other cities have voiced their support for continuing under the previous requirements.
"This City Council is not interested in holding secret meetings," said Irvine City Manager Paul Brady. "We have no interest in changing the public's access to their government."
The open-meeting law was one of 19 state mandates--including a requirement that police officers provide assistance to stranded motorists and that judges consider victims' statements when sentencing felons--that were suspended this year to achieve a claimed savings of $59 million.
James Apps, a budget analyst for the Department of Finance, said most of those requirements were "totally unnecessary" because local government would perform the functions even if the state didn't pick up the tab.
Sen. Ralph C. Dills (D-Gardena) introduced legislation Monday to reinstate the law. Assemblyman Lloyd G. Connelly (D-Sacramento), author of the 1986 open-meeting law, said he would follow suit.
"I don't think any public entities are going to abuse the law in the next year, but the potential is there," Connelly said. "There is a history of public entities acting without public notice. In some instances it's negligence, but in other instances it may have been intended."
So far no state money has been paid out because of the open-meeting requirement and only one local agency--the Los Angeles City Council, which asked for $12,000 in 1987--has ever filed for reimbursement.
While the Orange County Board of Supervisors has not considered the issue, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, estimated it would cost $1.6 million over four years to pay for the posting of agendas and allowing public testimony.
Some critics challenge those numbers, however. "That's just junk. It has no basis in fiscal reality. It's not going to cost the state a dime to enforce this mandate," said Connelly, adding that it is relatively inexpensive to type and post a two- or three-page agenda.
Times correspondents Shannon Sands and Greg Hernandez contributed to this report.