Meet the young reporter whose stories on government secrecy led to creating California’s Open Meetings Act (aka The Brown Act)

Editor’s note: This story originally ran on Oct. 15, 2014 and was written by legendary and pioneering investigative reporter and editor Tracy Wood, who died a year ago this week. Her powerful work, as this story demonstrates, serves as a persistent championship of the power of the press and the ongoing need for journalists and the public to push government to maintain openness of public records and meetings. We offer this opinion piece in honor of Sunshine Week (March 14-20).

 

Michael Harris was a young reporter in the 1950s, when his stories on government secrecy in California led to creation of the Ralph M. Brown Act (California’s open meeting law) and helped inspire a national reform for local government open meetings.

Harris died at his home in Chevy Chase, Maryland in 2014.

Harris retired from the Chronicle in 1994. During his nearly 50-year-career, as Chronicle writer David Perlman put it, Harris “was in many ways the classic newspaperman: investigating evildoers, supporting the best of causes, writing features with verve and style, and composing essays with meticulous care.”

But it was his 10-part series in 1952 titled “Your Secret Government” about the sneaky practices of county supervisors, city council members and school districts in the Bay Area that led to creation of California’s landmark open meeting law for local governments.

In a 2012 telephone interview with Voice of OC, Harris recounted how Richard (Bud) Carpenter, legal counsel for the League of California Cities and then-Assemblyman Ralph M. Brown (D-Modesto) joined together to write the law that barred closed meetings of local government agencies. It later was expanded to state government bodies and has been reproduced in states across the nation.

As Terry Francke, general counsel for open government advocates Californians Aware wrote in his Harris obituary, “for Carpenter and the League, the main problem to be solved was not that there was no law requiring open meetings of local government bodies; it was that there were too many, each written to govern specific types of agencies—cities, counties, school and special district boards of various jurisdictions.”

Harris said poorly written existing laws sometimes required meetings to be open to the public, but local officials didn’t have to say where and when they were meeting. In other cases, he said, he simply was thrown out of local meetings when officials wanted to discuss something they didn’t want a news reporter or the public to hear.

So when Carpenter began drafting the law that Brown, a lawyer who had had his own experiences with local officials going into secret meetings, would carry, Harris was asked to write the preamble.

The idea was to strip legal and government jargon from the opening words of the Brown Act and make it perfectly clear to everyone what the legislature and governor intended.

“You have to write the preamble,” and “write it in plain English,” Carpenter told Harris.

The preamble that Harris wrote to the Ralph M. Brown Act:

“The people of this State do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies which serve them.

“The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know.

“The people insist on remaining informed so that they may retain control over the instruments they have created.”