SB 71 Passing Could Reduce Transparency In Government
Posted by Former Blogger Chris Emami on June 18, 2013
A reader sent me an article this morning from the Southern California Public Radio Blog discussing the impact of SB 71 which is slated to be signed soon by Governor Brown. The bill does not outright abolish the California Public Records Act, but it does in my opinion create a loophole that could be used to avoid compliance with the act. I suggest that our readers take a look at the blog article on their website.
Changes to Public Records Act stirs controversy
Julie Small | June 18th, 2013
If, as expected, Governor Jerry Brown signs Senate Bill 71 this week, local government agencies will no longer be required to follow key provisions of California’s Public Records Act. The bill was part of the budget state lawmakers enacted over the weekend.
California law requires local governments to respond to public requests for information within 10 days. For example, a citizen could ask to see contracts that a city awards an independent contractor. If the municipality is unable to meet such a request, or if they reject it, they have to explain why. Both those requirements are about to be suspended for local governments.
The state maintains this is a budget move, because it has to reimburse local governments for complying with some aspects of records requests. The Department of Finance estimates that exempting local governments from those requirements could save the state tens of millions of dollars a year.
But Peter Scheer of the First Amendment Coalition says the change will create opportunities for local authorities to cut off public access to information:
“People are going to file public records request for records that they need, and under this new legal language, a local city or a county is going to be able to write back and say ‘denied’ and they’re not going to tell you why…I think that’s just crazy.”
But the Finance Department’s H.D. Palmer says local governments can adopt their own process — and he expects they will: “We believe that these are best practices that local governments have and will continue to abide by.”
And if they don’t, Palmer said local agencies will “have to tell everyone publicly in an open meeting, and they could conceivably be leaving themselves open to litigation.”
The public still has a legal right to information about local governments — and an expectation they’ll get it.
Jean Hurst with the California State Association of Counties agrees. After all, she says, local governments have provided public access to data for more than a decade now:
“I think a local agency would be hard pressed to say in an open meeting, ‘We’re no longer going to respond in a timely manner to your request for public records.’ That would be just surprising to me.”
Hurst believes the public expectation of transparency, and the threat of lawsuits, will prompt agencies to comply with the entire Public Records Act — “for the most part”.
But Jim Ewert, an attorney for the California Newspaper Publishers Association, thinks it’s naive to expect all local agencies and authorities will fall in line. Case in point: the former administrator for the City of Bell:
“Can you imagine Robert Rizzo having the opportunity to just say no, or actually not say anything at all, when people ask for public information?”
Ewert hopes to get the legislature to reinstate the provisions of California’s Public Records Act they just voted to suspend.
This bill is a terrible idea. As somebody that has made quite a few public records requests over the past few years, I can honestly say that most city staff members are extremely friendly, easy to work with, and timely in their responses. Some cities have gone over the 10 days and I have not reported it because they kept an open line of communication and were honest about the delays. Without naming any names, some cities are extremely belligerent and extremely tough to deal with. SB 71 would give these “belligerent” cities some leverage that they do not deserve to have (refer to the Robert Rizzo quote above).