California’s Brown Act — a law that outlines a set of rules that elected officials have to follow to ensure that local government business is conducted in open, transparent ways — had a slight facelift at the start of the year, with the addition of rules that address how government officials can or cannot engage with one another on social media.
California Assembly Bill 992, which made its way through state legislature in 2019 and 2020, sets stricter parameters regarding how elected officials — including city and town council members and school board members — can interact on social media.
Before AB 922, officials violated the Brown Act when they reached a quorum when it came to communicating over the internet — meaning, three people in a five-person city council couldn’t discuss a city issue on the same social media post. Now, however, council members are unable to respond to just one other council member through social media about a city government-related issue.
A portion of the bill states: “A member of the legislative body shall not respond directly to any communication on an internet-based social media platform regarding a matter that is within the subject matter jurisdiction of the legislative body that is made, posted, or shared by any other member of the legislative body.”
“No longer are we counting how many council members are involved in a conversation,” said attorney Jose Sanchez, who serves as the city attorney for both Cloverdale and Windsor, while explaining the new provisions to the Cloverdale City Council during a December meeting. Sanchez said that ‘likes’ over social media could potentially also result in a Brown Act violation.
“What the legislature is doing is just making sure that folks are watching social media a little closer as far as how board members interact with each other and what messaging is out there to prevent … communication between council members,” Sanchez said.
Seeing as the Brown Act applies to the discussion of issues relating to the elected body — school issues for a school board and city issues for a city council — the social media amendment to the Brown Act only applies to elected officials discussing matters for which they were elected. The act doesn’t apply to elected officials discussing miscellaneous, unrelated topics that will not come before their body for a vote or decision.
Sanchez provided this example to council members,:
“If on your Facebook page you post — and it has to be about city business — your position regarding an initiative that’s coming up regarding homeless or whatnot, and then we have one of our council members jump on to your page and comment ... ‘Mayor, I think this is a great idea, I fully support it.’ Even though an argument would’ve been made that that’s two council members, that’s just a mayor and a council members interacting, now the law is clear that that’s a violation.”
To read the full text of the bill, click here.