The ACLU Foundation of Northern California and Bay Area-based First Amendment Coalition sued the city of Fresno and Fresno City Council on Wednesday, alleging that local officials who held secret budget negotiations have violated the Brown Act, the state’s open meetings law.
The lawsuit, filed in Fresno County Superior Court, asks the court for an injunction to force the city to comply with Brown Act requirements to hold open meetings, provide public notice of meetings, and allow the public opportunity for comment.
The suit alleges that the City Council’s Budget Committee has since at least 2018 negotiated the annual budget behind closed doors, denying the public of their fundamental right to transparency in local government. The City Council typically rubber-stamps the budget once the Budget Committee, which includes three of seven council members, has finished its work.
‘A Lot of Sausage Being Made’
The lawsuit notes that in deliberations over the 2024 budget, the Budget Committee made more than 75 changes totaling almost $30 million to the mayor’s proposed budget, prompting Mayor Jerry Dyer to comment that “a lot of sausage was being made in the back room.”
The ACLU and First Amendment Coalition sent a letter in September warning the city to cease the practice of closed-door budget hearings and received a response from city attorney Andrew Janz saying “there is no legal basis for requiring any further action be taken by the Fresno City Council concerning this matter.”
“We’re disappointed that Fresno is choosing to keep its budget committee secret,” David Loy, legal director of First Amendment Coalition said in a news release. “The law requires the city to make Budget Committee meetings open to the public so community members are empowered to engage in the democratic process and hold their representatives accountable. When Fresno residents can see and understand how budget decisions are made, it fosters confidence in the integrity of their local government.”
City Attorney Andrew Janz issued a statement Wednesday afternoon saying the city does not comment on pending litigation and then added, “The fact that the complaint was provided to media outlets prior to the City of Fresno being served shows this is not actually about transparency but rather an attempt to impose a radical unworkable process on a City that does good work for its taxpayers.”