Walter Mencken 11 a.m., Nov. 27
California Public Record Act decimated by recent vote
Will Governor Brown use his veto power? What do local politicians have to say about their vote?
Peter Scheer of the California First Amendment Coalition is calling on people who are concerned about open government to contact Governor Jerry Brown's office about a "trailer bill" that was attached to the senate budget bill (SB 71) and passed June 14. The ability of the public and media to obtain information from behind the closed doors of public agencies has been compromised by Section 4 of SB 71 which reads in part:
"...these provisions shall be at the discretion of the local agency. For local agencies, these provisions represent best practices which are encouraged, but not required."
Public record requests are integral to the public's right to know or the media's ability to dig beneath the surface. Typically, a concerned individual will make a request to an agency (city, county, school district), and the agency is obliged to provide a response within 10 days or a reason for the delay. Many journalists and citizens already experience difficulty in getting some agencies to comply.
An example from the Reader of information obtained through a public record request was in August 2010 when the contract between former Southwestern College officials and a local public relations group was brought to light:
"What does it mean when a public lobbying firm says that a key objective is "to isolate and expose extremists"? Public records recently obtained from southwestern College offer a rare peek into the strategies of Focuscom, a San Diego-based marketing company."
The ability to expose this contract played a part in uncovering actions of former Southwestern employees that have now been indicted.
If this section of SB 71 passes into law, the time frame and even the response on the part of public agencies, becomes optional. The one proviso included in the section is that the agencies will be required to announce at their first publicly scheduled meeting that they cannot or will not comply with best practices.
H.D. Palmer, from the California Department of Finance, said in a June 17 interview that the governor initially proposed in February to suspend aspects of the California Public Record Act that might have to come out of the state's budget. The reimbursables included: assistance in seeking records, notification requirement (10 days) and redaction of employee information.
A "compromise" offered by the Legislative Analyst's Office, which will be passed into law unless Brown exercises his veto power, makes compliance "optional." Palmer said Brown would likely sign SB 71 into law within the week.
Assembly member Lorena Gonzalez voted for the funding bill which included the trailer bill; however, her office offered no comment.
Assembly member Shirley Weber, who also voted for SB 71, offered this comment:
"Transparency and Accountability are important to me. I disagreed with the Governor's January proposal to suspend portions of the California Public Records Act that are subject to the mandated law. The final compromise was suggested by the Legislative Analyst's Office to recast these provisions a "best practices"...meaning a local government must follow best practices or publicly announce that they are not following best practices at their next meeting. I have been and still am a strong advocate of equal opportunity and transparency."
Senator Ben Hueso's office provided this comment: "I am a strong supporter of government transparency and enforcing the Public Records Act. Even with the budget trailer bill passing, public agencies are still required to produce public documents. We simply cannot continue to subsidize something these agencies are required to do on their own.
"Because of these and other cost cutting measures, we were able to adopt a balanced budget that aggressively pays down state debt which while allocating additional funds for education, strengthening mental health programs and restoring dental benefits..."
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