Public Rights to Government Records Threatened

Terry Franke of Californians Aware, an organization that advocates for public rights to government information, has identified troubling changes to the California Public Records Act (CPRA) contained in Governor Brown’s 2013/14 budget proposal. Brown proposes to eliminate the CPRA mandate by halting state reimbursement to local agencies for the costs of compliance.

Franke’s report asks:

“What if California government agencies no longer had to let you know within 10 days how much of the public record information you’d asked for would be provided, if any? Or tell you what law allowed them to withhold it? What if they didn’t have to tell you that the information, while not in their files, could be obtained from a different agency? Or tell you what kind of digital records the information was kept in?  All these helpful responses to public records requests, required by the California Public Records Act for years, are recommended in Governor Jerry Brown’s new budget to be made optional ‘best practices’ instead of court-enforceable mandates.”

  • Open Meeting Notice Rule Suspended Last Year

Last year, the state decided it would not reimburse local governments for the cost of notifying the public about government meetings. (Because the California constitution prevents the state from imposing mandates without funding them, the cut in funding suspended parts of open-meetings law.)  The 2013/14 budget proposal would go further by eliminating state requirements to reimburse local governments for assisting the public with records requests and responding within 10 days.

The San Diego Union-Tribune reports a California Department of Finance spokesman explained it this way: “We are saying the state should not be on the hook for paying local governments for essentially what they should be doing as a matter of course as part of the best practices of government.”

  •  “Best Practices” Equates to Crossing Your Fingers

The Legislative Analyst’s Office recommends PRA requirements become “optional best practices,” saying:

“Under our approach, each year a local government would be required to either: (1) comply with the best practices or (2) announce at its first regularly-scheduled public meeting that the local government will not meet the best practices. This approach would facilitate discussions between local government officials and residents about the costs and benefits of improved public access to local government records.”

The “best practices” approach relies on the good faith of individual agencies, which amounts to little more than wishful thinking. Such an approach is unreliable since there are bad actors in every field — including local government.  Today it is common for residents to be stonewalled by local agencies seeking to conceal government meetings and information from the public.

In Contra Costa County alone, there are 78 special districts and 19 cities.  Does anyone truly believe that all of them voluntarily would follow “best practices” when legal action (or the threat thereof) is often necessary to gain compliance under current law?  Further, how many of these agencies currently exemplify “best practices” in other aspects of their operations?

  • Having It Both Ways

After the state stopped reimbursing costs for local agencies’ open meeting notices last year, most public agencies continued to comply.  But some agencies like to enjoy a public reputation for openness while avoiding transparency laws.

The San Diego U-T reported San Diego County was challenged for replacing a former top administrator with no public notice:  “County lawyers responded, among other arguments, by pointing out that there is no legal basis for challenging the county’s action because the relevant provisions of state law are ‘no longer operative.’”

Locally, the Mt. Diablo Unified School District illustrates the point closer to home.  The District, chronically plagued by Board member and public complaints regarding transparency, demonstrates that even multi-million dollar public agencies are unable to consistently comply with basic rules for posting public meetings.  Absent a legal mandate regarding public records requests, such agencies could pick and choose how to respond and would likely ignore some altogether.

  •  Public Access Best in the Long Run

In the final analysis, a spokesman for Bay Area State Senator Leland Yee (D-SD8) may have hit the nail on the head in observing that public access to government activities saves money over the long run.  Yee aide Adam Keigwin said:

You guys [the media and citizen watchdog-bloggers] doing your jobs as reporters and finding out about waste, fraud and abuse via the Public Records Act and making sure entities adhere to the Brown Act helps ensure that people are spending tax dollars more wisely.”

Public scrutiny is essential to good governance.  Now more than ever, California state and local government need increased public oversight, not less.  Limiting public access to government records reduces accountability of public officials and creates a climate in which corruption can flourish unchecked.

This is why the Governor’s proposed cost-saving changes to the California Public Records Act offer a false economy and disregard the best interests of Californians.

This article cross-posted at WatchDogWire.com.

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