Creeping secrecy

Speaking to the Chico City Council at its final meeting of the year, John Merz—director of the Sacramento River Preservation Trust and a regular council watchdog—complained that, when it comes to the city’s Ad Hoc Bicycle Advisory Committee, “there’s no place to go right now.”

What he meant was that it is hard to know where, when and even whether the committee is meeting. That’s because of its “ad hoc” designation. “Ad hoc” committees do not fall under the state’s open-meetings law, which means they don’t have to hold regular meetings or advertise the meetings they do hold and, thus, can meet anywhere, anytime. This benefits the city because it saves staff time and money, but for reporters and people like Merz who want to know what the committee is doing, it presents a barrier.

The phrase “ad hoc” (meaning “for this") ordinarily refers to a committee or similar group set up for a special, temporary purpose. Sometimes, though, these committees end up lasting a long time, even indefinitely. In addition to the bike committee, the city also has three ad hoc subcommittees, none of them temporary.

At that Dec. 19 meeting, the City Council created yet another ad hoc committee, one whose purpose will be to analyze the upcoming recommendations resulting from the downtown parking access charrette held last year. This one, at least, seems to qualify as a special-purpose committee.

The council needs to take a hard look at the ad hoc committees with the goal of avoiding “creeping secrecy.” Those that are ongoing should be redesignated to comply with the Brown Act.