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Assembly Democrats Join Senate Democrats In Assault On Public Records Act (Updated)

Posted by Greg Woodard on June 19, 2013

Following up on Chris Emami’s story from yesterday, as reported by the OC Register today, the Assembly passed AB76, which has identical language to SB71, and will be submitted to Governor Brown for his signature.  Every Republican legislator in the Assembly and Senate (except Tom Berryhill – 14th Senate District who is listed as “Other”) opposed both AB76 and SB71, and just a single Democrat voted no for either bill (Senator Leland Yee – 8th Senate District).  If Governor Brown signs the bill into law, it will eviscerate the open government protections of the Public Records Act by making local agencies’ compliance with the Act voluntary instead of mandatory.

Courts interpreting the Public Records Act have consistently held that the Act is to be read broadly in favor of disclosure of documents to the public, and the Act has only a few categories that are exempt from disclosure (and when a local agency refuses to provide documents, it must explain why).  Under AB76, disclosure will be voluntary, meaning that local agencies can refuse to provide documents, and do not have to provide any reason for the refusal.

Ironically (or perhaps not when it comes to Democrats and their legislative tactics), AB76 was added as a budget trailer bill.  Trailer bills are often drafted in secret, sometimes just days or hours before they are voted on in both houses of the state legislature.  You read that right, a bill that allows local agencies more secrecy and less transparency was drafted in a most un-transparent manner.

Journalists often use the Public Records Act to sniff out public corruption.  The City of Bell scandal was exposed in part by use of the Act, as have many other stories of local government waste and fraud.  In addition, private individuals and groups often use the Act to obtain documents needed to challenge local government decisions that affect their property or the environment.  If the changes to the Act become law, local agencies who are hiding things from the public will no longer be compelled to produce any documents, and scandals will go unexposed.

Assemblyman Don Wagner, 68th Assembly District, says AB76 highlights the dangers created by the Democrats’ stranglehold on power in Sacramento: “AB 76 shows why the entire public — Republicans and Democrats alike — should be worried about one party rule.  Eliminating compliance with the Public Records Act has nothing to do with the budget.  So why is this abomination in a so-called Budget Bill?  Because Democrats have complete control and can do it this way to avoid the public scrutiny that comes with committee hearings and an open discussion through the normal legislative process.  This bill, written behind closed doors without a shred of bipartisan input, shields even more government behind those very same closed doors.  The public should be appalled.”

As Emami said in his story, this is a terrible bill that will have a dramatic negative impact on local government transparency.  Democrats apparently believe that secretly passing bills that allow local agencies to act with more secrecy is good government.  I hope that most Californians disagree.

****UPDATE****

As Don Wagner mentioned yesterday, Sacramento Democrats have done one of the most rapid u-turns ever (perhaps the nuclear retort from the media inspired them).  Wagner reported this afternoon that the Assembly voted today to pass the same budget trailer bill as AB76, but without the provisions that would eviscerate the Public Records Act.  While the Senate initially resisted similar efforts, reports are coming out that they will acquiesce and pass a similar bill to the Assembly’s fix.  Governor Brown is expected to sign the fix, therefore preserving the Public Records Act in its current form, which is a good thing for all Californians.

Wagner also reported that both the Assembly and Senate will propose constitutional amendments to eliminate the state’s obligation to reimburse local agencies for Public Records Act compliance.  (Warning, boring political inside baseball stuff ahead).  Apparently, when the Legislature ended redevelopment agencies (another measure that crossed the aisle considerably), the local agencies got too cute and started seeking reimbursement from the state for the cost of every minute copy, office supply, etc. that they incurred for compliance with the Public Records Act but previously had not sought reimbursement for.  That may have taken the Democrats in Sacramento by surprise but unfortunately their “fix” would have ended open government as we know it in this state.  I guess the moral for Democrats is not to target the media’s bread and butter because they actually start doing their job when you threaten the source of their juiciest stories.

I would like to return the favor and thank Don for all of his information and for all of the Republicans in Sacramento and their efforts to undo this terrible stinker of a Democratic bill.

Stay tuned in case there are even more breaking updates.

5 Responses to “Assembly Democrats Join Senate Democrats In Assault On Public Records Act (Updated)”

  1. Don Wagner said

    A quick update (and a thank you to Chris and Greg for such good work on this problem):

    I am hearing that the Assembly will tomorrow morning consider legislation to undo the Public Records Act portion of AB 76. The heat on the Democrats up here in Sacramento has been whithering and much deserved. However, the Assembly fix will not necessarily be matched with SB 71, the Senate version of the bill. We’ll then have to see whether the conflicting versions both get to the Governor, and, if so, which he signs.

    Don Wagner
    Assembly Member, 68th District

    • You guys are right. Jesus, I never thought I’d say this – thanks Don Wagner for fighting this. How many times am I going to have to fight my own party now that they have 2/3?

      • vernnelson said

        That’s good news today. By the way, Don, you educational guru, it’s spelled “withering.” And “encrosion” is not a word.

        Happy to be back to normal…

    • OC Insider #29 (aka Greg Diamond) said

      You’re welcome, Don.

      The Democrats were immediately responsive when faced with public pressure promoting a legitimate viewpoint. It’s too bad that the Republican U.S. House of Representatives can’t learn to do the same! Just imagine if they’d responded to public clamoring for a real and significant jobs bill without something other than 37 attempts to repeal Obamacare and a frenzy of trying to undo abortion rights. Why — we might actually see governing take place in DC.

      But, yes, I agree with Vern: thanks for standing for transparency despite its adding the state’s tax burden. There’s a whole agenda, by the way, for those of us who want to promote public transparency, promoted by groups such as “Transparency International”: http://www.transparency-usa.org/. Can we count you in as a supporter of their broader anti-corruption agenda? We can, right?

  2. […] Assembly Democrats Join Senate Democrats In Assault On Public Records Act (ocpolitical.com) […]

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