Groundbreaking reporter Michael Harris, whose work led to open-meetings laws, dies at 92

Michael Harris, a reporter turned councilman whose investigative journalism catalyzed the creation of California’s open records laws, has died. He was 92.

Harris joined the San Francisco Chronicle in the middle of World War II. During his first year on the job, he learned that “members of local public agencies were routinely barring reporters and other citizens from supposedly open meetings,” his official obituary in the San Francisco Chronicle. “They were being kept out of policy-setting sessions by city and county governments, school boards, and irrigation districts throughout the Bay Area, he reported, and the locations and starting times of many of those sessions were not announced beforehand.

“Mr. Harris was often physically expelled from sessions that were supposedly open, sometimes under threat of violence, and was refused entrance to meetings whose doors were closed to all but local lobbyists.”

In the early 1950s, he penned a 10-part series titled “Your Secret Government.” The stories caught the attention of legislators in Sacramento, and led to the creation of California’s landmark Open Meetings law of 1953, authored by Assemblyman Ralph M. Brown.

“The law, which became known as the Brown Act, barred all closed meetings of public agencies throughout the state and has since been expanded to cover state government agencies. It has been reproduced in states across the nation.

The original act’s preamble was written by Mr. Harris at the request of the California Legislature. “The people of this State do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies which serve them,” he wrote. “The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know. The people insist on remaining informed so that they may retain control over the instruments they have created.”

Eventually, Harris was subject to those laws he helped create. In 1960, he served one term on the Sausalito City Council.