Note: This page covers information specific to California. For general information concerning access to government meetings see the Access to Government Meetings section of this guide.
California law provides you with a right of access to the meetings of a large number of government bodies at the state and local level. There are two separate statutes providing the right of access to meetings: the Bagley-Keene Act (full text) and the Brown Act (full text). Together, these two Acts permit any member of the public to attend any meeting of a "state body" or a "legislative body of a local agency," subject to specific exceptions. They also entitle you to receive advance notice of the meetings and to inspect and copy meeting minutes.
The material below gives a broad outline of some important aspects of California open meetings laws. For more details, consult The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press's Open Government Guide: California. In addition, the California Attorney General's office has published two useful guides on California open meetings laws: A Handy Guide to the Bagley-Keene Open Meeting Act and The Brown Act: Open Meetings for Local Legislative Bodies.
What Meetings are Covered?
What Government Bodies Are Covered?
One California open meetings law, the Bagley-Keene Act, applies at the state government level. Specifically, it applies to the meetings of a "state body." A "state body" refers to state boards, state commissions, and similar multi-member bodies of state government that are required to hold official meetings. These state bodies include executive agencies like the California State Board of Equalization. A comprehensive list of these agencies is available at California's State Agencies Directory. The term "state body" also applies to committees, boards, and commissions who exercise authority delegated to it by a "state body" (as defined above), and to advisory committees or groups if they are created by formal action of a state body and have more than three members. The term may also apply to a board, commission, or agency that appears to be private or non-governmental in nature, if it receives funds provided by a "state body" and includes a member of a state body serving in his or her official capacity.
The second California open meetings law, the Brown Act, applies at the local government level. Specifically, it applies to the meetings of a "legislative body of a local agency." The term "local agency" includes all cities, counties, school districts, municipal corporations, special districts, and all other local public entities. The term "legislative body" refers to the governing bodies of these local agencies, such as a county board of supervisors, the board of a public works agency, a city council, or a local school board. A number of other government and semi-private bodies may fit into the category of "legislative body of a local agency." Consult the Attorney General's guide for details.
The Bagley-Keene Act and the Brown Act do not apply to bodies of the California State Legislature. Another open meetings law governs the State Legislature and requires that meetings of either house and their committees be open to the public. The Bagley-Keene Act and the Brown Act do not apply to federal government bodies.
What is a Meeting?
In addition to determining what government bodies are covered by the open meetings laws, you'll need to figure out which of their gatherings or activities constitute a "meeting" for purposes of the law (and therefore must be open to the public).
For state bodies, the Bagley-Keene Act defines a meeting as "any congregation of a majority of the members of a state body at the same time and place to hear, discuss or deliberate upon any item that is within the subject matter jurisdiction of the state body to which it pertains." For legislative bodies of local agencies, the Brown Act defines a meeting as "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 item that is within the subject matter jurisdiction of the legislative body or the local agency to which it pertains." Ordinarily, a meeting involves some sort of action taken by the public body (resolutions passed, decisions made, etc.), but the term "meeting" applies to deliberations and information-gathering or fact-finding sessions as well. These definitions of meeting are broad and include any gathering of a majority of members in order to discuss and carry out the body's public business. It would not include purely social and ceremonial gatherings, nor would it likely apply to an academic conference or similar event that a majority of members happened to attend.
A meeting may take place by teleconference (either audio only or both audio and video), but the meeting must (1) comply with all of the other requirements of the open meetings laws (e.g., notice requirements); (2) be audible to the public at the location specified in the notice of the open meeting; (3) have at least one member of the government body physically present at the location specified in the notice of the meeting.
The Brown Act specifically prohibits members of legislative bodies of local agencies from using the telephone, email, or other electronic communications to make group decisions without holding formal meetings (thereby circumventing the public right of access). While the Bagley-Keene Act has no similar provision, a court would likely find a violation of that Act as well, if a member of the public established that a state body was purposefully circumventing open meetings requirements by making decisions via email or other electronic means.
What Are Your Rights?
The California open meetings laws give you the right to attend the meetings of state bodies and the legislative bodies of local agencies, with an exception for closed meetings and sessions discussed below. California law does not limit access to meetings to a specific category of people or a profession, such as "the traditional press." Anyone may attend a meeting that falls under the requirements of the Bagley-Keene Act and the Brown Act.
The right to attend meetings is not necessarily meaningful without proper notice of those meetings. To address this issue, California open meetings laws require covered government bodies to post notice of their regular meetings in a publicly accessible place and to mail notice to those persons who have specifically requested notice.
State bodies covered by the Bagley-Keene Act must post notice of their meetings on the Internet at least 10 days beforehand. They must also mail notice to anyone who has requested notice in writing (this appears to be free). The notice must give you the time, date, location of the meeting, and the name, address, and phone number of a person who can provide further information before the meeting. It also must contain a specific agenda for the meeting, including a brief description of items to be discussed.
Legislative bodies of local agencies covered by the Brown Act must post an agenda for their meetings in a place that is freely accessible to members of the public at least seventy-two hours beforehand. It also requires the legislative body to mail a copy of the agenda to anyone who has requested notice in writing. The body may charge a fee for mailing notice, but the fee cannot exceed the actual cost of the service.
The open meetings laws also provide for "special" and "emergency" meetings under specified circumstances. Different notice requirements apply to those kinds of meetings. For details, see the Open Government Guide: California.
Minutes, Recordings, and Documents
You have a right to obtain copies of the minutes of open meetings under the California Public Records Act. The governmental body from which you request minutes may charge a fee or deposit. Additionally, you are entitled to inspect any writing or document distributed to members during a meeting. If a document was prepared by the governmental body itself, you are entitled to inspect it at the time of the meeting. If a document was prepared by someone else, you are entitled to inspect it after the meeting.
Governmental bodies may, but need not, make audio recordings of their meetings. If the body chooses to record its meetings, those recordings are public records, just like ordinary minutes.
You are not entitled to copies of the minutes or recordings of closed sessions or meetings (discussed below), unless you can prove to a court that a closed session was held in violation of the open meetings laws or that discussion in a closed session strayed from the topics listed in the agenda.
For information on your ability to use recording devices at public meetings, see California Recording Law.
An Exception: Closed Meetings or Sessions
The general rule is that state bodies and legislative bodies of local agencies must hold their meetings open to the public. They may exclude members of the public from their meetings only if they identity a specific statutory exemption and meet other procedural requirements.
Under the Bagley-Keene Act, a state body may hold a closed session when it is dealing with one of twenty-eight subject-area exemptions listed in Cal. Gov't Code § 11126 (scroll down). If the state body is dealing with one of these enumerated subject areas, then it must also meet the following procedural requirements:
- The state body must hold the closed session as part of a regular or special meeting.
- During the regular or special meeting, the body must disclose the nature of the items to be discussed in closed session (before the closed session takes place).
- The state body must provide advance notice (ten days) to the public of its intention to hold a closed session.
- This notice must contain a specific agenda for the closed session, describing in general terms the items of business to be discussed, and a citation to the specific statutory authority under which the body claims an exemption from the open meetings laws.
Under the Brown Act, a legislative body of a local agency may hold a closed session or meeting when it is dealing with one of thirteen subject-area exemptions found in Cal. Gov't Code §§ 54956.7 - 54957.8 (scroll down). If the legislative body is dealing with one of these enumerated subject areas, then it must also meet the following procedural requirements:
- The legislative body must disclose in an open meeting prior to the closed meeting or session the nature of the items to be discussed.
- The legislative body must post an agenda for the closed meeting or session at least seventy-two hours beforehand. The agenda must describe the items to be discussed in a general way, but need not invoke the specific statutory authority under which the body claims an exemption from the open meetings laws.
Note that these exemptions permit a government bodies to close a meeting; they do not require these bodies to do so. For more details on exemptions, be sure to check out the Open Government Guide: California, A Handy Guide to the Bagley-Keene Open Meeting Act, and The Brown Act: Open Meetings for Local Legislative Bodies.
What Are Your Remedies If You Are Denied Access?
In California, any member of the public may file a lawsuit in California state court for violations of the open records laws. If you win such a lawsuit, you can obtain a court order prohibiting a government body from violating the open meetings laws in the future. For example, a court might order a government body to allow you to attend meetings from which it had previously excluded you. You can also obtain a declaration that past government actions violated the open meetings laws and have the court invalidate past actions taken in violation of those laws. A court may award you attorneys' fees if you prevail in a lawsuit.
If you want to bring a lawsuit to invalidate the action of a local agency, you generally must make a written demand on that agency within ninety days of the meeting in question. You must do this within thirty days when the action you are complaining about took place in an open session but was not listed on the noticed agenda. If the local agency fails to cure the problem within thirty days of receiving your demand, then you may file suit. If you want to invalidate the action of a state body, you must file suit within ninety days of the decision or action you are challenging. Note: these time limits and the demand requirement only apply if you want to have past agency action invalidated; if you just want an order prohibiting future violations, you do not have to satisfy these requirements.
However, a lawsuit usually is a slow and expensive solution, so it is generally better to resolve a dispute without going to court. In the event that you are denied access to a meeting, you should contact the government body in question and indicate that you believe your rights have been violated and that you are willing to bring a legal action. You should submit your complaint in writing whenever possible. If the governmental body continues to deny your request for access, you should consider filing a lawsuit. There may be public interest organizations that would be willing to take on your case for free or for a reduced rate. Please see the Finding Legal Help section for details on finding legal representation.
For additional details on your legal remedies under the California open meetings laws, see A Handy Guide to the Bagley-Keene Open Meeting Act and The Brown Act: Open Meetings for Local Legislative Bodies.