Residents of California, you nearly got screwed. The latest attempt by Sacramento to weaken the public's access to their government has been defeated, thanks to quick-acting open-government advocates who last week succeeded in getting lawmakers to kill a provision in a bill, soon to be signed into law, that would have made compliance with a key component of the California Public Records Act (CPRA) optional for local governments.
AB 76 would have suspended the CPRA provision that requires local governments -- cities, school districts and other public agencies -- to respond to public records requests within 10 days and to provide certain types of assistance to those seeking the records. The language that would have done so was stripped from the bill last week after a groundswell of public opinion forced the legislators to back down. We're grateful for the victory, but seriously troubled that a move to curtail the public's right to know what government is doing was attempted at all.
The Legislature and Gov. Jerry Brown say that the provision's suspension -- crammed into an already wide-ranging bill and therefore landing largely under the radar -- was intended to save money. The state reimburses local government agencies for some of the costs associated with complying with CPRA requests. There was no intent, the lawmakers claim, to sabotage the public's right to review nonexempt records -- a right enshrined in the 1968-enacted CPRA, which is considered a model law for government transparency.
The argument is identical to another made last year when the Legislature suspended an important provision of the state's open meeting law -- the Brown Act. Dumping the state's obligation to reimburse public agencies for posting agendas before meetings -- thereby making such postings voluntary rather than mandatory -- would save the state $96 million over three years, the lawmakers claimed. They had to backpedal on that one, too, under pressure from government watchdogs.
Whether the moves were intended primarily to save money or as underhanded attempts to thwart public scrutiny of government business may never be fully understood. But the public outcry heard once government watchdogs waved the red flag about the latest maneuver should give lawmakers a clear message: Don't try to eviscerate laws that have been instrumental not only in keeping the public informed but also in helping to expose government corruption at every level.
The silver lining of this sad debacle is the public discussion that is now taking place. An effort by some lawmakers and open government advocates to require the sunshining of all bills at least 72 hours before the Legislature votes on them is growing in strength. This would avoid the last-minute deviousness that has led to some bad laws being enacted without proper scrutiny by the public -- and even by legislators pressured to vote before having the time to fully understand what they were voting on.
According to CalWatchdog, Republican Sen. Mark Wyland of Escondido has pushed, unsuccessfully so far, to require a 21-day mandatory review period for all budget bills after being required to vote for a budget "literally hot off a printing press." These ideas are worth serious consideration in the name of good, and open, government.