Modesto leaders sent mixed messages this week about the mayor's State of the City address, calling it a City Council meeting and then changing course to avoid breaking an open government law.
The state's Ralph M. Brown Act prohibits city councils from charging admission to their meetings. But Modesto appeared to be doing just that when it called Mayor Jim Ridenour's annual speech a City Council meeting.
Ridenour is delivering the speech at a Feb. 17 Chamber of Commerce luncheon that costs $40 to attend. Because the City Council is expected to attend, the city clerk sent out a public notice calling the event a council meeting and listing one agenda item: the State of the City speech.
That put the city on the wrong side of the Brown Act, which says it's illegal for city councils to hold meetings in facilities that bar people on the basis of race, gender, religion or "where members of the public may not be present without making a payment or purchase."
Brown Act expert Peter Scheer, executive director of the California First Amendment Coalition, said Modesto could avoid the violation if it let the public listen to the speech without paying the $40 lunch fee.
"While they can offer things there like lunch or coffee for a fee, the part that they can't charge for is admission," Scheer said. "That has to be permitted for free. This is either a situation where they are required literally to provide a free lunch or they have to have a mechanism where people can opt out of eating."
He added, "There are no free lunches except in politics, and here it is."
City attorney agrees
When The Bee called the city to inquire, City Attorney Susana Alcala Wood agreed that calling the lunch a City Council meeting violates the Brown Act.
"They put it up before they ran it past legal," she said of the meeting notice. "I would agree with you that you can't charge to attend a council meeting."
The clerk's office sent out an amended version of the notice, changing it to an informational memo that says the council will attend the event.
The Brown Act doesn't regulate community meetings such as the chamber luncheon as long as council members don't discuss city business while they're there.
The Feb. 17 luncheon will be Ridenour's first time delivering the speech at a venue that charges admission. He's given the talk in past years at high schools, the State Theatre and the City Council chamber.
Past State of the City speeches have been sparsely attended, aside from government employees, their families and a few business leaders. Organizers of this year's event say they hope to bring the speech to a wider audience.
Bee staff writer Leslie Albrecht can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2378. Follow her at Twitter.com/BeeReporter.