Athens gave the world democracy. Runnymede left us the Magna Carta. Philadelphia bequeathed a double legacy to mankind: The Declaration of Independence in 1776, and then, 11 years later, the Constitution.
And Modesto? Modesto is the home of open government. A lofty birthright given our city's humble name, but the title is arguably well-deserved.
Modesto gave Assemblyman Ralph M. Brown to California. Brown gave California the Brown Act.
California's Brown Act then gave to the nation and the world a model of effective open government that was quickly emulated by legislatures across the county.
Modestans voted Brown to represent the 30th Assembly District from 1943 to 1961. In 1953, Brown successfully passed his eponymous act, California's first ever sunshine law.
Soon, places like Florida and Washington were passing similar open-door acts. By 1959, there were 20 states with open meeting laws; in 1962 there were 28; by 1974, there were 46; and today all 50 states have open meeting laws.
California's wasn't the first open meeting law: England passed one in 1908. In this country, Wisconsin had a primitive hodgepodge of statutes dating back to the 19th century. Alabama required open meetings, but without notice provisions, a hollow victory for open government: You didn't know when or where the meeting would be, but if you managed to get there the doors would be open.
A very few others had toyed and tinkered with the idea before, but it was the Brown Act, with the first comprehensive, effective, enforceable right to open meetings duly noticed, that became the model and set off an inexorable chain reaction leading most other states to follow suit.
It's said the Modesto attorney, after having secured a win for a client during an open meeting, had his win overturned in a private session held immediately after. Maybe Brown stewed over this injustice while lying in bed at his home on 309 Magnolia Ave. (a house which later passed to Maxine Fisher, the late grandmother of fellow Curtis Legal Group attorney Peter Fisher).
After passage the Brown Act caught on like an idea whose time had come. Following his efforts to open up California politics, Ralph Brown was chosen as speaker of the Assembly, and was later appointed by then Gov. Pat Brown (father of the current governor, although no relation to Ralph Brown) as a judge on the newly created 5th District appellate court.
Ralph Brown died at Doctor's Hospital in 1966. His act lives on. Appropriately for the man who brought us sunshine laws, his final resting place lies within the Sunrise Garden section of Lakewood Cemetery near Hughson. We can honor Brown's legacy by learning about our Constitution, participating in process, and engaging in the serious business of self-governance.
One way to engage is through the American Heritage Scholarship Series. On Tuesday, Kevin Smith will present on whether the media helps or hinders voter decision-making.
High school juniors and seniors are invited to write essays about the subject. But this is a conversation for the wider community too.
Earlier this year, an individual (on behalf of a corporation registered at his home address), leveled accusations against the county mayors, decrying their informal get-togethers based on a misreading of the Brown Act and a misunderstanding of the Stanislaus Council of Governments' voting rules.
As a result of the firestorm, several county mayors resigned willingly from StanCOG, to avoid even the appearance of impropriety. This is unfortunate. Instead of reading the Brown Act, or case law, or bothering to understand its application, too many reacted in a knee-jerk fashion based on myths and misconceptions stirred up by someone who isn't even from this community.
The knee-jerk media controversy surrounding a subgroup of mayors who never constituted more than a minority of StanCOG's Policy Board is Exhibit A in the case for why mayors should be allowed to meet informally, free of surveillance, to bounce ideas and lessons-learned off each other.
As a former teacher, I know that ideas don't spring like Athena from Zeus' head fully formed. They begin fragile and must be nurtured, like a seed planted in our fertile valley soil.
Public scrutiny, while crucial to the process of winnowing out bad ideas, can become detrimental when imposed prematurely. Farmers prune trees, not saplings.
As a former mayor, I know how invaluable the monthly get-togethers were in my growth as an individual and as a leader. I am truly grateful to then-Mayor Jim Ridenour for his vision and leadership in spearheading these informal learning opportunities, and to the other mayors who felt safe enough to expose their vulnerabilities and lessons-learned with me.
Such open dialogue, in the true spirit of Ralph Brown, led to greater dialogue and cooperation and understanding among our institutions, and would have never occurred underneath a microscope.
Ralph M. Brown cared about this community, our government, and community participation in our government. I imagine he would be pleased and inspired, as am I, by the number of students and community members who gather year after year to learn about the kinds of issues that are addressed in the American Heritage series.
What better guarantee that Modesto will continue to secure a legacy of sunshine for generations to come!
Broderick-Villa is an attorney with Curtis Legal Group. A former high school teacher and former mayor of Waterford, he serves on the American Heritage Scholarship Committee. Curtis Legal Group librarian Carol Fike and law clerk Nolan Shaw contributed research for this essay.
AMERICAN HERITAGE SCHOLARSHIP SERIES
When: Tuesday at 7 p.m.
Where: Martin G. Petersen Event Center, 720 12th St., Modesto
Who: Speaker will be Keith W. Smith, assistant professor of political science at the University of the Pacific
Why: To assist Stanislaus County high school juniors and seniors in preparing their essays for the 2012 essay contest. The theme is: Has the media advanced or hindered voter's ability to make an informed decision in this presidential election?
More info, including essay applications: Available from high school counselors and from the county Office of Education at (209) 238-1706 or online, www.stancoe.org/scoe/admin/american_heritage.