The California Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA, has at least two important features that may not be generally understood:
- CEQA establishes an effective process for public participation, requiring governmental agencies to solicit and respond to public comments on virtually every significant governmental decision. Absent CEQA, there is no general requirement that governmental agencies ask for public comments on important decisions, and that such agencies respond to them in a serious and substantive way. The CEQA process is far and away more substantive than a requirement for a "public hearing," which generally just means that members of the public will be allowed some brief amount of time, like two minutes, to comment on something prior to agency action (and without any requirement that the agency respond substantively to the issues raised by the public). "Environmental" issues aside, CEQA is California's strongest "good government" law.
- CEQA has what is called a "substantive mandate." This is a requirement in CEQA that the governmental agency proposing a project eliminate, to the greatest degree feasible, any adverse environmental impacts identified in the environmental review process. Without this mandate to "do it right," governmental bodies would often neglect to take actions that could make their decisions "better" from an environmental point of view, actions that are absolutely "feasible," but which would otherwise be disregarded, absent the legal requirements of CEQA. Again, this is, more than anything, a "good government" requirement.
When you hear CEQA "reform," watch out!