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PD Editorial: Bills threaten key aspects of records law

The California Public Records Act makes clear that "access to information concerning the conduct of the people's business is a fundamental and necessary right of every person in this state."

That is unless public officials choose not to comply to save a few bucks.

That's essentially how the state would amend the act by way of two budget trailer bills, AB 76 and SB 71, that threaten to gut the state's all-important transparency law. We encourage Gov. Jerry Brown to veto them forthwith.

Under the bills, counties, cities and other public agencies would no longer be required to respond to a Public Records Act request within 10 days or to provide a legal explanation for the denial. They also would no longer be required to provide electronic records in a format specified by the requester, even if the agency can do so with ease and with little cost.

Under the bills, public agencies would be encouraged to follow these rules as "best practices," but they would be under no mandate to do so.

The problem is that the Public Records Act is most needed when public agencies are least motivated to make documents available. Compliance, on those occasions, cannot be an option. There's too much at stake.

Press Democrat readers saw this play out three years ago when Sonoma County resisted this newspaper's request for data on what the county was paying in pensions. After a Public Records Act request was rejected, The Press Democrat sued and won. These proposed changes would have given county retirement officials more room to hide and made it far more difficult to get the pension information in a digestible format.

The same can be said of similar cases throughout the state where media and the public have battled to get a better handle on soaring retirement costs, pension spiking and questionable spending. The city manager of Bell was forced to step down in 2010 when it came to light via a Public Records Act request that he was making roughly $1.5 million a year — and stood to receive a $600,000 a year pension — to run a city the size of Rohnert Park. We find it hard to believe that Bell officials would have been so willing to adopt transparency as a best practice if they had the option.

The legislative analyst has said that the the state would save upwards of "tens of millions" of dollars by relieving the state of its obligation to reimburse agencies for these costs. But this is not supported by any facts. The state Department of Finance has acknowledged that it has no idea how much this would save. That's because is has no real idea how much compliance costs.

We're encouraged that, given the public outrage over these trailer bills, Assembly leaders vowed Wednesday to send the governor a budget bill that does not include the changes. But this would still leave the governor the option on which one to sign.

We encourage Brown to veto this problem package. Better still, he should work with the Legislature to put on the ballot a constitutional amendment making clear once and for all that compliance with the state Public Records Act, as well as other state transparency laws, is not optional, even in a time of limited financial resources. Voters thought that's what they were getting in approving Proposition 59 in 2004. But apparently, as with these proposed changes demonstrate, they're not getting what they keep demanding — openness.


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