California open government laws stipulate that governmental bodies should meet in the open, post their agendas well ahead of time, and be as transparent in proceedings as possible.
But not all of the 100-plus boards, commissions and committees that meet under San Joaquin County's auspices are beholden to those requirements, according to one county official.
"There's going to be a combination of determining laws and facts on each one," said Terrence Dermody, San Joaquin County counsel. "There isn't any one good answer."
Dermody said the vast majority of county boards fall under the Ralph M. Brown Act, the state law mandating open government. But groups that either meet for a specific purpose in a limited amount of time, or are a smaller committee of an existing group -- like a specially appointed two-member panel of the county board of supervisors -- may not, he said.
The county's interpretation, though, could be different from that cited by open government advocates, such as those at the California First Amendment Coalition.
Peter Scheer, coalition executive director, argues Brown Act applies to almost any group or commission created by another group obviously subject to the Brown Act, such as a board of supervisors.
"It's an area fraught with confusion," he said.
While a board-created commission might fall under the Brown Act, a private consulting firm hired by a board generally does not -- even though in both cases the board's action is directed for a specific purpose.
"There's nothing in principle different in the two situations," he said.
Similar wording comes from a 2003 pamphlet published by the California Attorney General's office on the Brown Act. The pamphlet describes "subsidiary bodies", such as a board or commission of a local agency, as beholden to the Brown Act. But less-than-a-quorum advisory committees, are sometimes exempt.
The issue came up for county supervisors at last week's meeting, when government watchdog Georgianna Reichelt complained about what she called a lack of openness on the Juvenile Justice Delinquency Prevention Commission.
That group, comprised of both county residents and those who work directly with youth crime prevention, meets monthly and discusses ways to keep youngsters out of trouble.
Reichelt said she's been stymied in attempts to find out the occupation of one member of the commission, which she said should be under the same level of openness as the supervisors themselves.
She also said that the meeting's agenda is available only at the county's Stockton offices, which are closed on weekends. As a result, she said, an agenda for a recent Monday night meeting was available only on Friday afternoon and Monday.
"That seems like less than 72 hours to me," she said at the meeting, referring to the Brown Act-mandated period for posting an agenda before a group meets.
Dermody said the group falls under the act, but it's possible that its members may not fully understand compliance with the law -- not an uncommon problem, he added.
Though county officials informally tell new appointees about meeting the Brown Act and other ethical government guidelines, he said, making sure every person fully understands the law, and follows it, is beyond the county's reach.
"The most efficient way is having someone going to meetings constantly and watching them," he said. "But that would take a deputy from my office full-time to do that."
Instead, he said, informing new board or commission members about open government laws is usually left up to a county director or staff member who works with that group -- but that too, he said, is a hit-or-miss effort.
Supervisors said at the meeting that they'd prefer as much public accountability as possible.
"I know that if you want honest government, and that government is using public funds, you want open government," said Supervisor Victor Mow.
Pending legislation could make that easier. Assemblyman Simon Salinas, D-Salinas, has written a bill pending that would require Brown Act and ethics training for all elected public officials. Dermody said that could be extended to top county administrators.
Scheer said such training would be beneficial, and worth whatever it costs to a public agency.
"We understand that it's confusing," he said. "But a board needs to get a little quick training from its attorney, or an outside attorney, or a group such as ours.
"It can save a lot of time and money later."