The state Senate on Monday approved and sent to Gov. Brown a bill that would restore key provisions of the California Public Records Act, following an outcry from the media and others that officials had tried to block the public’s access to government business.
The bill, SB 71 by the Senate Budget Committee, removed language that appeared in a budget-companion bill, AB 76, that sat on the governor’s desk awaiting his signature. But that measure came under fire for making certain core requirements of the California Public Records Act optional for local governments.
“Frequently, some people would say the fourth protocol [of the government] is the press because it’s the press’s access to open government that keeps the government free,” said Sen. Joel Anderson, R-Alpine, said during the Senate debate. He added that he also was skeptical of local governments support for the measure.
“Putting the chicken hawk inside the henhouse, it’s no surprise to me that the league of cities and other governments would say that they will continue [to adhere to the Public Records Act],” he said.
The bill was approved by the Democrat-controlled Senate 28-11. The governor has 12 days to sign it.
In reaction to the public backlash, the Democrats also proposed a constitutional amendment to put PRA protections into the constitution and place the issue before voters next June.
Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, and Senate Leader Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, authored the amendment, which was expected to be heard Thursday.
The rationale for the original language was that the state was incurring debt to reimburse local governments for enforcing its mandates to respond to Publoic Records Act requests. Making those requirements optional “best practices” would give the state the opportunity to avoid that cost. State officials insisted that local governments would have continued to adhere to those practices regardless of the change in policy.
But PRA advocates, including publishers, reporters and good-government groups, protested that making such fundamental requirements of the statute voluntary would seriously impede access to public documents.
“If you’ve ever filed a public records request you know that local government or any government agencies, they don’t want to comply with even mandatory requirements of the Public Records Act,” Phillip Ung of California Common Cause said. “By making it optional, all you do is just throw gasoline on that fire and give local agencies of government legal authority to say we don’t want to comply.”
The constitutional amendment has been portrayed by Senate leadership as a long term solution to both fiscal and first amendment concerns the language created. It would require local governments both to adhere to the policies as law and incur the cost themselves:
“There was never an intent to undermine the strength of the Public Records Act, only to appropriately raise the issue of who should pay for a mandate that local officials should do as matter of good public policy and transparency,” Steinberg said prior to the vote.
This staunch public defense of the Public Records Act came only in reaction furious public scrutiny over the last week in reaction to what was seen by many as a stealthy attempt to gut the statute through language hidden in a trailer bill.
That language, however was there as early as January, and Leno reprimanded advocates of the act for not coming forward sooner.
“Through the legislative process, it really requires all stakeholders to be present as early and as often as possible,” he said, closing the debate on the bill. “We could have saved ourselves some time and trouble.”