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SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) – Majorities of both houses of California’s Legislature RSVP’d for a private lunch with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger after he delivered his State of the State address earlier this month, raising questions about whether the gathering violated state law.
The RSVP list shows 22 members of the 40-member Senate and 43 members of the 80-member Assembly intended to gather with the governor for the closed-door steak-or-salmon lunch Jan. 6.
Schwarzenegger’s office provided the names to The Associated Press in response to a request filed under the California Public Records Act.
No one has confirmed how many lawmakers actually attended the gathering. But establishing that quorums of both legislative houses intended to participate is key to determining whether the meeting might have run afoul of state open-meetings laws.
At issue is whether the public should have been allowed to attend. California law requires that meetings of the Assembly and Senate be open if a quorum will be present and legislative or official matters will be discussed.
An AP reporter showed up at the lunch, held at the private Sutter Club near the state Capitol, but was turned away by Schwarzenegger’s security detail when she asked to be let inside.
Several legal experts who specialize in First Amendment issues were skeptical that such a gathering, held immediately after the governor’s speech, was purely social.
In his invitation to lawmakers, Schwarzenegger himself suggested that state business was among the reasons for the gathering.
“I plan to lay out some bold ideas for helping our great state through this troubled time and building an even brighter future, and I don’t doubt that we will have plenty to talk about,” his invitation reads in part.
Terry Francke, legislative counsel for the nonprofit First Amendment group Californians Aware, said legislative leaders should have ensured a majority of their members did not attend the event if the governor wanted to keep it private.
“Once the leaders came to realize that the invitations went out to everyone – to all members in both houses – one of the first considerations should have been whether this would trigger the legal requirements for an open gathering,” Francke said. “Determining housekeeping issues such as where people are going to be at any given time is a leadership function.”
All four legislative leaders – the top Democrats and Republicans of the Assembly and Senate – attended the lunch. Their representatives have defended lawmakers’ participation by saying the lunch was a social affair organized by the governor.
The Legislature is governed by a separate set of open-records and open-meetings laws than other state agencies, statutes that give the Legislature greater leeway to operate in secret.
Nevertheless, the provisions governing meetings allow closed-door sessions in only a handful of cases. Those include deliberations about lawsuits, employment and the security of the Legislature. Members of one party may also meet to caucus in private.
But there is no specific exemption in state law for social gatherings of the Legislature, as there is for meetings of state agencies and local government bodies.
The public also must be given timely notice when public meetings are to be held.
Tom Newton, general counsel at the California Newspaper Publishers Association, said the law was broken only if business matters were discussed, which would be hard to prove because the public wasn’t allowed to attend. He also added the quorum of members who RSVP’d may not have shown up.
“You have to determine a quorum actually was there and that they heard, deliberated or discussed a public issue,” Newton said. “Were there individual conversations that could never amount to a quorum or did somebody take a mike and lead a discussion in which everybody was involved?”
Peter Scheer, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition, a San Rafael-based nonprofit that advocates for eliminating unnecessary government secrecy, said it was inconceivable that politics and legislative matters were off the menu with that many lawmakers in a single room.
The AP filed the public records request to get the names of all those who RSVP’d to the event and of those who attended. The Assembly and Senate said they did not keep track of which lawmakers attended, nor did the governor’s office.
When asked by the AP after the event how many lawmakers came to the lunch, a spokesman for Schwarzenegger said it was about 70, or a majority of the 120-member Legislature.
Alicia Trost, a spokeswoman for Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, said the lunch was a social event organized by the governor’s office.
“Members did not RSVP through the pro tem’s office,” she said. “The purpose was not to discuss legislative business.”
Shannon Murphy, a spokeswoman for Assembly Speaker Karen Bass, D-Los Angeles, did not respond Friday to messages seeking comment.
The governor’s senior staff, political consultants and lobbyists also attended. Holding a private meeting in violation of state law is a misdemeanor, and anyone who attends would be in violation.
Experts said the legal burden is on the Assembly and Senate, not Schwarzenegger, since it was a quorum of those bodies that RSVP’d to the lunch.