Senate's proposed SB 931 places undue burden on California special districts

Posted by Sloane Dell'Orto on February 28, 2020

California legislators are pushing for additional transparency requirements for local government agencies. Their latest bid, Senate Bill 931, will require our districts to provide a copy of the full agenda packet via mail or email to anyone who requests it.

Sounds like a great idea on the surface, doesn’t it?

Of course, we agree that the public has the right to know what their elected officials are doing when it comes to official district business, but there are numerous problems with this proposed bill. 

Let’s break down some of the implications (bold indicates the actual bill text):

Any person may request that a copy of the agenda, or a copy of all the documents constituting the agenda packet, of any meeting of a legislative body be mailed to that person.

A legislative body shall email a copy of the agenda or a copy of all the documents constituting the agenda packet if the person requests that the item or items be delivered by email.

The problem with the email requirement is this: aside from the agenda itself, many of the supporting documents may have been submitted by others - hand written letters from local citizens, reports from an outside auditor, parcel maps provided by the county, etc. Due to this, the agenda packet is most often scanned, creating a “flat file” - basically a collection of images that can sometimes exceed 100MB in size.

Outlook has a sending limit of 20MB. Gmail’s limit is 25MB. With these numbers in mind, how are districts expected to comply with this requirement?

Our first thought was that they could add the packet to their website and then email out a link. Sounds simple enough...

However, with the rise in website accessibility claims against special districts, this is a bad plan if the agenda packet isn’t fully accessible to people with disabilities. (Most scanned documents of this sort are not text-based or accessible at all.) By adding the scanned documents to their website, they automatically have more exposure to civil rights lawsuits for having an inaccessible website.

If requested, the agenda and documents in the agenda packet shall be made available in appropriate alternative formats to persons with a disability, as required by Section 202 of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (42 U.S.C. Sec. 12132.

This makes sense for electronic documents (even if it is an additional burden), but what about the mailed packets that are also required? How are districts supposed to provide a physical copy of the agenda packet in “alternative formats” that are accessible to someone who is blind, for example? (Record the board secretary reading it out loud, and mail a thumb drive of the recording? Print the packet in braille?)

Again, we understand and agree with the desire for inclusion, but this simply isn’t feasible, especially without financial support from the state. Which brings me to my last issue with this bill:

No reimbursement is required by this act pursuant to Section 6 of Article XIII B of the California Constitution because the only costs that may be incurred by a local agency or school district under this act would result from a legislative mandate that is within the scope of paragraph (7) of subdivision (b) of Section 3 of Article I of the California Constitution.

Every time the state legislature tucks another requirement into The Brown Act or The Public Records Act here in California, they aren’t required to reimburse districts for the cost of compliance. However, the reality is that districts may have substantial costs associated with complying - especially with a bill of this magnitude. We’re hopeful that CSDA (the California Special Districts Association) will be able to get significant amendments made to the bill to make it possible for our districts to be in compliance. As the bill text currently stands, compliance simply is not possible for many districts.

Read the entire bill text online.

I would love to learn more about the implications for your district in particular. If you're up for sharing your experience managing agendas and all that, please:

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Topics: California compliance Accessibility Website requirements