The ACLU of Northern California and First Amendment Coalition are suing the City of Fresno for allegedly violating state transparency laws in connection with the city’s budget - a question first raised in a Fresnoland investigation earlier this year. File photo by Omar Rashad | Fresnoland

What's at stake:

The ACLU and First Amendment Coalition say Fresno has been breaking the law for several years, a claim city officials have denied.

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. On Wednesday, Maxwell, Mayor Jerry Dyer and Fresno City Attorney Andrew Janz did not respond to Fresnoland requests for comment.

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

Janz however sent a statement to other news organizations in Fresno, claiming the complaint was sent to media before the City of Fresno was served, and that it “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.”

Fresnoland’s August investigation on the city council’s budget committee included a review of California’s 10 largest cities that found only Fresno, the state’s fifth largest city, claims a Brown Act exemption for its budget subcommittee. 

That puts Fresno out of step with Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco, Sacramento, Long Beach, Oakland, Anaheim, and Bakersfield — which all have 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.

Fresnoland’s investigation in August also 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.

Additionally, the City of Fresno does not have the paperwork to prove that the budget committee dissolves and reforms each year, a key 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, according to the lawsuit document.

“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.”

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Omar Shaikh Rashad is the government accountability reporter for Fresnoland.

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