The City of Fresno is facing a lawsuit from the American Civil Liberties Union and the First Amendment Coalition over its budget process.
Both organizations claim the city is violating the Brown Act by holding budget subcommittee meetings behind closed doors.
The backstory: The Fresno City Council has many subcommittees comprised of three councilmembers, allowing them to work with the city administration without a quorum, which would necessitate an official council meeting.
- One such subcommittee is the budget subcommittee, which has been held by the council since 2018.
- Questions surrounding whether or not the subcommittee violates the Brown Act arose this past summer when the city adopted its $1.9 billion budget. The Brown Act requires local governments in California to have open meetings to the public when there is a quorum of representatives present.
The big picture: Wednesday, the ACLU and FAC filed a lawsuit against the city in the Fresno County Superior Court alleging that the budget subcommittee violates the Brown Act by not offering the public any opportunity for input.
- According to the lawsuit, the budget subcommittee was responsible for over 75 changes totalling nearly $30 million in the fiscal year 2024 budget.
- “Accordingly, the Budget Committee’s secrecy has deprived the public of any meaningful opportunity to comment on the budgeting process, leaving them without input on the Budget Committee’s process of recommending disposition of their taxpayer dollars and without a significant or effective voice in decisions on the funding of vital city services,” the lawsuit reads.
- The plaintiffs allege that the subcommittee effectively has the final word on the city’s budget.
What they’re saying: “Transparency and public participation in public meetings, especially those involving decisions on Fresno’s record-breaking $1.87 billion budget, are crucial for a thriving democracy. That’s why we’re suing Fresno over its secret Budget Committee,” said Angélica Salceda, Director, Democracy and Civic Engagement Program, ACLU Foundation of Northern California.
- David Loy, a Legal Director with the First Amendment Coalition, said his group is disappointed that Fresno is choosing to keep the subcommittee secret.
- “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,” Loy said. “When Fresno residents can see and understand how budget decisions are made, it fosters confidence in the integrity of their local government.”
- Fresno City Attorney Andrew Janz countered with the following statement: “We do not comment on pending litigation but 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.”