3 Ways to Bolster the California Public Records Act

3 Ways to Bolster the California Public Records Act

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A couple months ago, Gov. Jerry Brown and the California Legislature nearly gutted the California Public Records Act under the guise of saving taxpayer money. Today, the act remains intact, but it’s hardly as strong as it should be.

As part of their budget negotiations, Brown and company had considered legislation that would have significantly reduced funds that the state provides to cities and counties to offset the cost of fulfilling public records requests. But they abruptly changed course after critics blasted them for trying to undermine the public’s right to know.

In theory, the California Public Records Act upholds the “fundamental and necessary right of every person in this state” to examine documents and data that public officials maintain on our behalf. Officials are supposed to “promptly” provide access to information when taxpayers make a reasonable and specific request, but delays are common and fees can be burdensome and excessive.

By making taxpayers fight for documents and data that should be easily accessible, government agencies send the message that taxpayers can’t actually be trusted with the information.

Last year, a national study of state laws and practices that are supposed to promote transparency and curb corruption gave California a near-failing grade when it came to a key indicator of openness: public access to information.

California had plenty of dubious company: the State Integrity project gave failing grades to nearly half of the states when it came to open records, but among the five states rated highest overall by the study, California ranked lowest in this crucial area.

Here are three ways to fix the California Public Records Act:

Shift the burden of proof

In 2008, Pennsylvania bolstered its public-records law with language that “presumed” government records were open unless the records fell under a specific exemption. “The burden of proving that a record of a Commonwealth agency or local agency is exempt from public access shall be on the Commonwealth agency or local agency receiving a request by a preponderance of the evidence.”

Two phrases stand out here: “burden of proving” and “preponderance of the evidence.” That’s an order to make records open by default. It’s also a warning: Government agencies better be able to defend their decision to withhold information in civil court.

In practice, Pennsylvania’s open-records law has been far from perfect, but it tied for second place in State Integrity’s rankings of public access to information.

An express presumption of openness would strengthen the CPRA.

Engage the tech community

California is the birthplace of Code for America, a nonprofit that embeds computer programming fellows in local government agencies and helps them solve problems with software code. It is also home to some of the world’s biggest and most sophisticated technology companies.

The Golden State should be leading the charge in the open-government revolution. State and local agencies should engage civic-minded technologists and open-government advocates about how best to convert and publish information in machine-readable form before citizens ask for it.

The state’s open data site is a good start. Next step: a vast library of digital documents that can easily be searched and converted into data.

Local Officials Need to Step Up

Sure, there are specific exemptions to the CPRA that make sense — disclosing information that would make the state vulnerable to attack, for example, is a bad idea — but there are broad categories of public information that should be more, well, public.

Municipalities should work with open-government advocates and civic technologists to exceed the minimum requirements of the CPRA and establish laws and policies that presume records to be open (e.g., the mayor’s calendar). Adding a presumption of openness to the legal documents that govern cities and counties would make it binding on all agencies, but a mayoral executive order could provide good momentum.

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Voice of San Diego is a nonprofit that depends on you, our readers. Please donate to keep the service strong. Click here to find out more about our supporters and how we operate independently.


Joel Hoffmann

Joel Hoffmann

Joel Hoffmann is an investigative reporter for Voice of San Diego, focusing on county government, the San Diego Unified School District and the Unified Port of San Diego. You can reach him directly at joel.hoffmann@voiceofsandiego.org.

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4 comments
Seth Hall
Seth Hall

I completely agree and appreciate the last suggestion Joel mentioned, which is to fix a statewide problem by starting locally. As beneficiaries of the PRA laws, news organizations are in a unique position to not only know where the most pain is, but also to be able to lead an organized effort to make change where the pain is. It costs money, time and expertise to make these changes, and as major stakeholders, unified news organizations are in the best position to lead a consistent, unified effort to get that started. Journalists who want to make an impact and advocate for an issue can start right here, with this issue, which will better the quality of their own journalism and will increase access to records for their readers. And here they have an ally in VOSD and in Joel.

Seth Hall
Seth Hall memberauthor

I completely agree and appreciate the last suggestion Joel mentioned, which is to fix a statewide problem by starting locally. As beneficiaries of the PRA laws, news organizations are in a unique position to not only know where the most pain is, but also to be able to lead an organized effort to make change where the pain is. It costs money, time and expertise to make these changes, and as major stakeholders, unified news organizations are in the best position to lead a consistent, unified effort to get that started. Journalists who want to make an impact and advocate for an issue can start right here, with this issue, which will better the quality of their own journalism and will increase access to records for their readers. And here they have an ally in VOSD and in Joel.

Benjamin Katz
Benjamin Katz

This is a huge topic & I'm appreciative of Joel's research into this and preliminary ideas on how we can make government more open. In addition to what Joel has listed, I'd immediately also add making the PRA process transparent. Both requests for records and responses should be handled through a publicly visible portal (with date/time stamps), so that we all can see how responsive our government is being, derive general benefit from anything that has been already released, and monitor for inconsistent/discriminatory releases of information.

Benjamin Katz
Benjamin Katz subscribermember

This is a huge topic & I'm appreciative of Joel's research into this and preliminary ideas on how we can make government more open. In addition to what Joel has listed, I'd immediately also add making the PRA process transparent. Both requests for records and responses should be handled through a publicly visible portal (with date/time stamps), so that we all can see how responsive our government is being, derive general benefit from anything that has been already released, and monitor for inconsistent/discriminatory releases of information.