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Fresno sued over ‘secret budget committee’ after Fresnoland investigation

Fresno City Council members discuss Measure C renewal plan at meeting on Thursday, August 11
Fresno City Council members discuss Measure C renewal plan at meeting on Thursday, August 11

The ACLU of Northern California and First Amendment Coalition are suing the City of Fresno for allegedly violating state transparency law in connection with the city’s budget — a question first raised earlier this year in a Fresnoland investigation.

The lawsuit filed Wednesday accuses the Fresno City Council’s “secret budget committee” of violating California’s Ralph M. Brown Act, which requires legislative bodies to hold their meetings publicly, along with releasing agendas in advance and allowing public input on decisions.

“What I understand is this committee is the effective final word on the final budget, that the final budget is often rubber stamped by the full city council and the committee is where the real work gets done,” said David Loy, the legal director at the First Amendment Coalition.

The Fresno City Council’s budget committee is composed of three councilmembers every year. This year, the budget committee’s members were Council President Tyler Maxwell, Vice President Annalisa Perea and Councilmember Mike Karbassi.

The lawsuit says the city council’s budget committee was created by formal action and has had continuing subject matter jurisdiction since 2018 — two elements that would make it subject to the Brown Act.

It’s unclear whether the City of Fresno intends to fight the lawsuit. Mayor Jerry Dyer, Fresno City Attorney Andrew Janz, and Maxwell did not immediately respond to Fresnoland’s request for comment.

Maxwell has not responded to inquiries from Fresnoland about the council’s budget committee since July. Janz has not responded to Fresnoland’s budget committee questions since Aug. 1.

Fresnoland’s investigation in August probed whether Fresno’s budget process may have been violating California’s Brown Act for several years. The report revealed that the Fresno City Council’s budget committee has negotiated a proposal for council approval in meetings closed to the public since at least 2019.

The investigation also found that the City of Fresno does not have the paperwork to prove that the budget committee dissolved and reformed each year, a central claim Janz and city officials have stuck by while asserting the annual budget committee is a temporary, or “ad hoc,” body.

The ACLU and First Amendment Coalition also could not find any evidence that the city council dissolved its budget committee in 2018.

“Based on our review of city council meetings, minutes, resolutions and so on, we simply could not find any evidence that there was any action to dissolve the committee,” Loy said. “It was created in 2018 and essentially maintained in existence.”

But even with evidence that the budget committee dissolved every year, it wouldn’t sully the lawsuit’s legal arguments because the law deals with what’s being done in reality, not what the city claims it’s doing, Loy said.

“The issue is the reality, not the label,” Loy said. “You can’t defeat the Brown Act just by calling an apple an orange.”

Loy also credited Fresnoland’s investigation for revealing to the public key details about the Fresno City Council’s budget committee.

“It was Fresnoland’s breaking of the story that alerted us to the problem,” Loy said. “We and other advocacy organizations depend upon the work of the local press that breaks these stories.”

Back in August, Fresnoland also reviewed the 10 largest cities in California by population — Fresno is No. 5 — and found that every city with a budget committee keeps it open to the public, except Fresno. That includes Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco, Sacramento, Long Beach, Oakland, Anaheim, and Bakersfield — all with budget committees subject to the Brown Act with agendas, minutes, and attendance made public.

San Jose, California’s third largest city by population, does not have a budget committee and the city’s budget reconciliation is done publicly by the entire city council. Large San Joaquin Valley cities like Bakersfield and Stockton also keep their budget committees open to the public, too.

Following Fresnoland’s investigation, two city councilmembers — Garry Bredefeld and Miguel Arias — have called for Fresno’s budget committee to be opened up to the public.

This article first appeared on Fresnoland and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.