A high stakes battle is brewing that could threaten the most important tools the public uses to keep lawmakers in check: the public records law. Stephanie Chuang reports.
It’s a high stakes battle focused on one of the biggest tools the public uses to root out corruption in the government: the California Public Records Act.
Right now, local and state agencies must provide public records to people if requested and paid for. But a new bill that was set to get Gov. Jerry Brown’s approval and take effect July 1 would have gutted the act.
It would have changed the funding source for fulfilling the public records request from the state’s general fund to the respective local agency, which would then essentially make responding to the requests voluntary. As it stands, agencies must at least respond to the requester within 10 days, give a reason why if a request is denied, and provide electronic records in the original format.
State Sen. Jerry Hill (D- San Mateo) said the state owes local governments roughly a couple hundred million dollars, about $20 million a year, for the money directly related to fulfilling public records requests. For everything else under the same umbrella of state-mandated procedures and policies, the state owes close to $2 billion.
He pointed to the state getting rid of a different mandate: one for cities and counties to post notices of their meetings 72 hours beforehand. Hill said last year the state stopped paying what notoriously became known as the “$150 thumbtack.”
“Some local governments were charging the states $150 to post one piece of paper with a thumbtack on the wall 72 hours before their meeting,” Hill explained. “And that mandate was removed last year and there have been no abuses.”
The most recent move regarding the Public Records Act was supposed to be a continuation of that trend: the state cutting losses, asking local agencies to pay for what could be considered core government responsibilities.
“This would be a good policy, save the state a lot of money,” Hill said. “But it’s turned out to be a PR nightmare.”
Brown introduced the idea of cutting some aspects of the PRA in a budget outline in January. Hill said there were three public hearings and six months for feedback, but the American Civil Liberties Union countered that wasn’t the case.
“We were aware there might be some minor changes to the PRA, but when the language actually appeared in this budget trailer bill, we were quite surprised,” said Michael Risher, an attorney with the ACLU of Northern California. “How ironic that we are now hearing about something that’s apparently a done deal that’s going to make it harder for us to find out what our government is doing.”
Risher said ACLU Northern California regularly files public records requests, showing a box of recently requested documents from the state, asking about local government funding for high tech surveillance systems, including drones.
“When people try to get public records, some cities, some counties are very good. Other ones throw up road block after road block,” Risher explained. “This will allow them to sit on a request, ignore them.”
After mounting pressure from the public, media outlets and government watchdog groups this week, state lawmakers and Brown reversed course Thursday. The assembly voted 52 to 25 to change the budget trailer bill that had originally weakened the PRA provisions. The move returned the PRA to status quo.
The state senate, which at first balked at status quo, announced it would follow suit and is expected to pass the amended senate bill when it votes on it Monday. Brown then signaled he would also sign the bill.
But that’s not the end.
State Sen. Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) told NBC Bay Area over the phone that the state legislature and governor are going to push for a constitutional amendment that would make local agencies solely responsible for managing and paying for public records requests. If it passes both houses with a two-thirds majority next week, it’s set to go to the voters on the June 2014 ballot.
That was positive news for Peter Scheer, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition based in San Rafael. He said roughly 700 Californians ask the organization for help to break through the red bureaucratic tape that left them feeling stonewalled, not getting the information from various public agencies as requested through the PRA.
“About themselves, local school, their community or their police department or whatever it might be – their right to see information is being thwarted by the local agencies,” Scheer said.
He said with what’s at stake, if watchdog groups feel transparency with government agencies is compromised, a lawsuit is a real possibility.
“We’ll be watching very closely, but we’ll be doing more than watching,” Scheer said.