Bill adding new exemption to state agency open meeting law gets committee nod

This week the Assembly Health Committee passed AB 860 by Assemblyman Ken Cooley (D-Rancho Cordova) to exempt the Mental Health Services Oversight and Accountability Commission (MHSOAC) from the Bagley-Keene Open Meeting Act when conducting a fact-finding tour of specified facilities related to the discharge of the commission’s duties.

The unanimous vote was 14-0.

While allowing the commission to conduct a tour of a facility that is either not open to the public, or for which opening the facility to the public would compromise the safety or security of the facility, the bill would require the commission to provide 10 days’ notice to the public of the commission’s intent to tour a facility, and requires the commission to permit at least one member of the media to attend the fact-finding tour.

It also requires the commission to comply with the notice procedures of the Bagley-Keene Act and requires that the notice include a statement identifying the location, date, and purpose of the fact-finding tour.

CNPA, the First Amendment Coalition and Californians Aware have been working with the author’s office and commission staff on language that balances the public’s right of access to meetings of the commission with the commission’s need to gather information about the effectiveness of programs used in mental health treatment facilities, prisons and other facilities that are closed to the public.

AB 860 permits the commission to make arrangements for a pool reporter to attend a tour if the number of reporters requesting to accompany the Commission is excessive and would compromise or impede the safety and security of the facility or location. The bill would prohibit the commission from taking any action during a fact-finding tour and prohibit the members from discussing among themselves any business that does not fall within the scope or purpose of the tour.

Lastly, the measure would require the commission to post on its internet website a summary of the fact-finding tour within 10 days after the completion of the tour.

The MHSOAC was established by the Mental Health Services Act (MHSA) enacted by voters in 2004 as Proposition 63.

The MHSA established the commission as an independent entity charged with providing oversight and accountability to the public mental health system.

The intended outcomes of the MHSA include reducing incarcerations, school failure, unemployment, suicide, suffering, and prolonged homelessness for those in need of mental health services. Current law requires that any location where the commission conducts a fact-finding tour be open to the general public.

However, many Californians with mental health needs receive services in locations that are not open to the public, including locked mental health facilities, schools, jails, and prisons, making it difficult for the commission to gather information about services provided behind closed doors and discharge its oversight duties effectively.

AB 860 will next be heard in the Assembly Governmental Organization committee on April 19, after the legislature returns from next week’s recess.