By Lylah Schmedel, Staff Writer
Update as of May 3: AB 1275 passed through the Assembly Local Government Committee on May 3. The bill will be presented on the Assembly Floor during the May 30-June 2 session.
May 1, 2023
A controversial bill recently passed through the California State Assembly Higher Education Committee that could change Brown Act teleconferencing requirements for student body organizations at community colleges. The bill will be heard next by the Assembly Local Government Committee on May 3.
Assembly Bill 1275 was introduced by Assemblymember Joaquin Arambula (D, District 31), with the sponsorship of the Student Senate of California Community Colleges (SSCCC), in February.
The Bill would allow the student body organizations (SBOs) of California Community Colleges (CCCs) to be exempt from certain teleconferencing rules and standards for in-person public access laid out in the Ralph M. Brown Act.
The Brown Act
Since 1953, the Brown Act has served as the strict legal guide in California that establishes the rules for public officials facilitating governing meetings and requires the public to have access to those meetings.
Per Brown Act requirements, when holding public meetings, governing organizations must meet quorum in-person in a single, publicly accessible space and disclose that location on the board agenda. For members that are attending remotely, they are still required to be in a publicly accessible location disclosed on the agenda.
The State of Emergency put in place by California Governor Gavin Newsom in 2020 allowed public representatives, including those at CCCs, to hold meetings that were entirely remote, without establishing quorum in a publicly accessible space or disclosing each meeting location – circumventing the traditional Brown Act public accessibility rules. The governor terminated the State of Emergency officially on Feb. 28, reviving pre-COVID Brown Act teleconferencing requirements.
AB 1275 follows the technological integrations and exemptions for public meetings that arose during the state of emergency and quarantine periods of the COVID-19 pandemic, which increased the need for flexibility and virtual access.
In an April 14 interview with The Citizen, Assemblymember Arambula stressed the importance of creating bills like AB 1275.
“I do think it’s important since the Public Health emergency has now ended, that we work on legislation to continue the some best flexibilities that were afforded during the Public Health emergency,” Arambula said.
In the original language of AB 1275, Arambula and the SSCCC had proposed that SBOs would no longer need to physically establish quorum in a publicly disclosed location nor would they be required to make the location of each member attending the meeting remotely accessible to the public.
The current amendments to AB 1275 maintain that quorum needs to be met in a physical and publicly accessible location, but it would allow certain student representatives to attend public meetings entirely remotely without having to disclose or make their location available to the public.
According to Arambula, his team made these amendments in order to “narrow the bill” and respond to “concerns raised by the opposition.” The bill, as amended, passed through the Higher Education Committee on April 18.
Arambula noted that the amendments are intended to change the language of the bill so that only certain elected student representatives facing adversity or hardship would be allowed to attend meetings 100% virtually. He also noted that ultimately it would be at the discretion of CCC SBOs to decide who would be allowed to attend 100% remotely and who would not.
However, the bill does not provide these specifications.
The amended language resembles language in AB 2449, which was signed into law in September 2022. This bill allows representatives with just cause or emergency circumstances (including childcare needs) to attend remotely without having to make their location accessible or known to the public. Under AB 2449, members are still required to meet in-person quorum, and can only attend remotely for a total of 20% of all meetings for the year.
Opposing groups of AB 1275 expressed concerns of transparency, fair access and representation of student body officials to their constituents, as well as preparing the next generation of public representatives adequately.
Threats to Transparency?
From the view of the opposition, the original text of AB 1275 would have marked the end of in-person public meetings for the CCC community – raising issues of transparency as well as accessibility especially for the state populations that do not have broadband internet access.
The coalition registered in opposition of AB 1275 consists of Cal Aware, California Broadcasters Association, California News Publishers Association, the First Amendment Coalition (FAC), Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association (HJTA), and the Journalism Association of Community Colleges.
David Loy, Legal Director for the FAC, a nonprofit organization that works across California on government transparency issues, expressed the organization’s concerns over permanent remote options for public officials to conduct government business.
“It’s very important, we think, to expand public access by giving the public the right to watch remotely, if it wishes – but we should not contract access by allowing the government, the people exercising power, to do it by remote control permanently,” Loy explained.
“Open government is just not a formality,” Loy continued. “There is a world of difference between interacting with someone in person versus online.”
Brittney Barsotti J.D., who serves as General Counsel for the California News Publishers Association, and has actively lobbied on educational matters for years, expressed similar concerns. For Barsotti, AB 1275 symbolizes a gradual erosion of the Brown Act and an overall threat to transparency with our elected officials.
“The tenets of the Brown Act are critical for ensuring transparency,” Barsotti explained. “The idea that I shouldn’t have to show up for my constituents is extremely problematic for our democracy.”
Barsotti and the FAC both acknowledged that the pandemic revealed new ways to meet accommodations via remote teleconferencing. They noted that there has already been legislation created to address these advancements and needs for accommodation, such as the previously mentioned AB 2449.
“Let’s see how that works in the real world before we start overturning one of the foundational premises of the Brown Act,” Loy said, on behalf of the FAC.
“At the very least, let’s just slow down.”
AB 1275 claims that it seeks to protect the private home addresses of student officials. Barsotti specifically points out that nowhere in the Brown Act is anyone required to publish their personal home addresses, as the bill and its authors continuously suggest. Rather, representatives are required to report to meetings in a publicly accessible space unless just cause permits them to attend the meeting from home.
Despite the new amendments to AB 1275, Barsotti and the FAC still expressed concerns about the bill.
Barsotti mentioned that, while the new amendments addressed key concerns regarding in-person quorum, they “did not alleviate all of our concerns, especially given the trend we’ve seen this year with several bills designed to carve out different types of bodies from complying with the traditional teleconferencing requirements and AB 2449.”
“It has been a backbone of the Brown Act that public officials, public servants, from any legislative body, of any local agency of any kind, must be face-to-face with the people that they serve,” Loy said.
“That’s face-to-face accountability that is the cornerstone of accountability and democracy,” he added. “And so we are very concerned [about] any type of bill which reaches that.”
Loy also expressed the FAC’s concerns of the Brown Act being selectively enforced.
“We’re concerned about the idea of bills that create or threaten to create different classes or ‘tiers’ of different kinds of bodies that are subject to different requirements. For the last 70 years, the Brown Act has been virtually uniform in applying equally virtually to every legislative body and local agency.”
Why Student Government Matters
Under Article 4 of the California Education Code, student body governments play a primary role in establishing student fees allocated for the student government. They have oversight over budgets in the thousands of dollars, intended to empower and support students at each CCC campus.
Both Barsotti and Loy emphasized the importance of exposing student body leaders to the Brown Act as an opportunity to better prepare them for public service and establish relationships with their constituents.
“Public service is service for a reason and these are the next generation of student public servants,” Barsotti said. “You need to learn how to interact with constituents and build relationships to listen to what they are saying and have a constructive dialog. Over Zoom, when constituents are saying something you don’t want to hear, you can just tune that out.”
The Role of the Student Senate of California Community Colleges
AB 1275 was proposed to Arambula’s office by the SSCCC, who originally drafted the bill sometime in 2022, according to SSCCC Associate Director Stephanie Goldman.
The SSCCC, which lobbies on behalf of all 116 CCCs, notes on its website that “reform of recent Brown Act amendments” is a legislative priority for them in 2022 and 2023.
In an email to The Citizen, Goldman explained how the bill came into fruition.
“The bill idea came about holistically in the fall in response to the announcement that the Governor’s COVID emergency provisions were going to be lifted in February. The vast majority of community college students didn’t have experience with the pre-COVID Brown Act, so it’s a significant change for them and the students had major concerns,” Goldman wrote.
It is unclear exactly who drafted the original bill containing the controversial language. The Citizen reached out to SSCCC Vice President of Legislative Affairs Zachariah Wooden for clarification and also asked about the procedure that determined AB 1275 would be drafted.
While Wooden did not provide details on who drafted the bill, he described the way the SSCCC decides which bills will be sponsored.
“There is not a codified process for sponsored bills to be chosen, besides the Vice President of Legislative Affairs, myself, determining a list of potential bills based on our legislative priorities, and narrowing it down based on a variety of factors to the smaller list of bills that the SSCCC will sponsor and that will be introduced in the legislative session,” Wooden explained.
According to Wooden, the SSCCC started shopping the bill idea to legislators sometime during winter of 2022.
“Assemblymember Arambula’s office agreed to send the bill idea into the Office of Legislative Counsel for legal language, which was then introduced as a bill,” Wooden wrote.
Student representatives of all CCC student governments had the opportunity to vote on a Brown Act-related resolution authored by SSCCC members on April 1 and 2 at the annual SSCCC General Assembly, after the bill had already been presented by Arambula in February.
The resolution, titled the Brown Act Teleconferencing Resolution, claims the Brown Act creates privacy and safety issues for single parents, minors, unhoused people, those with limited transportation access, as well as those who are deprived of transportation and other resources. It requests an exemption of the Brown Act requirement for SBOs to disclose all locations being accessed by members and that the SSCCC make “Brown Act teleconferencing requirements a priority.”
The student representatives voted in favor of this resolution.
In a March 15 interview with The Citizen, Chanelle Win, the SSCCC Legislative Director for Region III and co-author of the resolution, voiced her support of the resolution and AB 1275.
“Students are being held to the same level as elected officials and that is really decreasing student engagement, when student engagement has been really low already,” Win said.
“The Brown Act is another barrier to accessibility for students instead of increasing accessibility like how the purpose of the Brown Act is supposed to be.”
Win also cited the end of the state of emergency on Feb. 28 as the reason for the recent drop in student engagement.
“After [the State of Emergency], we have to follow the traditional Brown Act where we saw a really huge drop in engagement just because of the restrictions, and it’s been really hard,” Win explained.
The Calbright Connection
In the only argument of support for AB 1275, the SSCCC mentions the issues of accessibility for CCC student representatives who must now return to meeting in person. They use Calbright College – California’s first and only entirely online community college – as an example of a CCC with a SBO who will struggle to meet quorum under the restoration of pre-COVID Brown Act rules.
“One of the big concerns is that Calbright, which is a fully online college that has a relatively recent SBO, wouldn’t be able to meet all in one location because they are a fully online college. We had to consider that when we were actually drafting the bill,” Goldman explained.
Calbright is currently not accredited, according to their website. The college faced a third attempt at being shut down last year, after legislators pointed out that students were not graduating at a consistent rate and noted concerns of low student engagement. The college recently announced that they met a milestone when they reached 2,000 enrolled students. The announcement also revealed the college’s completion rate had reached 200 awarded certificates as of March 13, 2023.
The primary authors of the SSCCC Brown Act Teleconferencing Resolution, Jeremy Cox, Michael Wai, and Mekhala Hiriyanna, are all students of Calbright Community College and serve as the first student representatives of Calbright College Student Body Organization (CCSBO) which was officially established in February. Cox, who serves as student body president for CCSBO, expressed that he was a single father living in Southern California and would be unable to be physically present for their meetings if AB 1275 did not pass.
Both Cox and Hiriyanna, who serves as Vice President of CCSBO, expressed grave concern for their student government if normal Brown Act rules continue to apply to SBOs.
“Calbright is an online college. We have a physical location and address in Sacramento, but that’s not where the college is located; that’s not where teachers teach out of. It’s like an administration address if you will. We don’t have an auditorium or anywhere that we could assemble our SBO teams to have these meetings and then invite students or members of the public who wanted to speak on anything on the agenda,” Cox said.
Cox and Hiriyana criticized having to post their home address when attending meetings from home and their concerns of safety.
“Imagine if a person was asked to declare their home address up on the internet for everyone to view. How many would agree to it? A very small percentage,” Hiriyanna stated.
When asked how this resolution could impact students with barriers to wifi access and/or those who are on physical campuses differently, Hiriyanna declined to comment. Cox stated those without internet access could just go to their local public library.
Cox mentioned that their team had been in favor of the drafted resolution to just apply towards Calbright College. However, it was the SSCCC that insisted that Brown Act amendments apply to all community colleges.
Committee On Local Government May 3 Bill Hearing
The bill will be heard by the Local Government Committee on May 3. If it passes through the committee process, and is passed by the Assembly, it will be presented to the Senate, at which point it will go through another committee process. Only with the approval of the Senate can AB 1275 reach the governor’s office, who will get the final say as to whether CCC student governments will receive Brown Act teleconferencing exemptions.
The hearing will take place at the State Capitol in Room 447 at 1:30 p.m., and can be viewed remotely here.