Recognizing the rise of social media as a preferred means of communication, a local legislator proposed a new law intended to clear the path for elected officials discussing matters of public interest online.
Assemblyman Kevin Mullin, D-South San Francisco, collaborated with Redwood City Councilwoman Giselle Hale to craft Assembly Bill 992, assuring officials who discuss potential policy matters with constituents on social media are not running afoul of public meeting regulations.
Mullin said the bill, which he expects to advance beyond the Assembly floor and onto the Senate, is an attempt to meet the needs of officials who want to connect online with their community members without violating the Brown Act.
“This is really an attempt to modify the Brown Act in a way that maintains open meeting provisions and certainly maintains the intent behind the Brown Act but moderates it in a way that takes into account routine types of communication and interactions on social media,” said Mullin.
Hale, a former Facebook employee, shared a similar perspective.
“This is modernizing the Brown Act,” she said. “It provides the same level of transparency that we enjoy and respect from government, but it puts it in the context of today’s communication channels.”
Hale said she was inspired to write the bill following her election campaign built on the foundation of a strong social media presence. While running for office, Hale said she established relationships discussing issues online with her community which she wished to preserve once elected.
“I just wanted to be really, really accessible and transparent and I think that’s true of how my generation leads,” she said.
For his part, Mullin said he floated the bill at the request of Hale others who enjoyed interacting with residents on social media but were uncertain whether their discussions would be problematic.
“I have heard that this is a concern,” he said. “Most folks in local government are looking for help and asking for clarity.”
The Brown Act was passed by the California legislature in 1953 to ensure transparency in local government. It specifically prohibits a councilmember from “discussing an item of business that is within the subject matter of a jurisdiction of the council with a majority of the council outside of a noticed meeting.”
Mullin said his proposal would allow officials to respond on social media to concerns of the community, so long as those issues were not items currently considered by their city council or elected body.
He said the proposal preserves regulations disallowing discussing items which would be on a meeting agenda, but makes way for general communication on broader issues. There is no current state statute addressing online interactions for elected officials, so the issue is often regulated according to the interpretation of city attorneys or similar legal advisors.
Recognizing the importance of the Brown Act, which was designed to prevent officials from making policy decisions behind closed doors or from discussing a specific policy with a majority of the governing board outside a public meeting, Mullin said his proposal is only designed to update the state law.
“This is not in any way an effort to undermine the Brown Act,” he said.
Mullin and Hale added the proposal is especially important as more people struggle to attend meetings due to professional or personal obligations in the evening hours. In lieu of attending meetings, both said more community members prefer to reach out to officials via Facebook, Twitter or Nextdoor.
“I know how busy people are and how difficult it is for parents and people working late shifts to come and comment on issues,” said Hale, regarding the barriers some face in attempting to attend meetings.
Mullin acknowledged the bill has faced pushback from media organizations afraid the bill would grant outsize influence to those who maintain social media presences. But he noted that for those who do not prefer to communicate online, more traditional methods such as writing letters or attending meetings remain available outlets.
“We are in no way trying to advantage one group over another,” he said.
Instead, he said the proposal is only an attempt to update a law to meet the practices preferred in a landscape largely ruled by modern technology.
“This is really just contemplating this new era we are in and recognizing how communication happens, particularly at a local level,” he said.
He said the proposal was endorsed by a variety of local elected officials, as well as the League of California Cities. Looking ahead, he said he expects challenging conversations about the legality of the proposal, with an eye to assure it doesn’t limit conversation on emerging social media platforms.
For his part, Mullin said he has encountered few challenges regarding the legality of discussing issues with his constituents online. But he does struggle to keep track of the variety of comments from across all his accounts.
“It’s a challenge to be able to be responsive in some form on all of the different channels,” he said.
Meanwhile, Hale said she appreciated the bill as a model of the collaboration needed between local and state officials to fix issues of mutual interest.
“This is how local and state government officials should work together,” she said.
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