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You’ve probably seen references to a big controversy currently surrounding the California Public Records Act, a law enacted in 1968 that allows the public to keep an eye on the government by granting access to public records.

Social media networks, particularly Twitter, caught fire over the issue this week, when media attention began to focus on parts of a bill attached to the state budget legislation. The bill includes language to be added to the California Government Code that would effectively make parts of the state’s public records law optional, rather than mandatory.

Since then, things have developed at a rapid pace. On Wednesday, under fire from journalists and open government advocates, Assembly Speaker John Perez sought to amend the legislation to avoid the controversial changes. Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg then offered his own solution, and Gov. Jerry Brown finally weighed in on the issue in a statement Wednesday.

This is still developing, but let’s take a look at the core of the issue and how this controversy has unfolded so far.

What are the proposed changes?

Under the new law, certain requirements that were previously mandatory for public agencies would become optional.

The California Public Records Act requires public agencies to make most of their documents available to the public, with certain limited restrictions. It also lays out a framework for the distribution of those documents, requiring, among other things, that agencies respond to information requests within 10 days and inform the requester of the format in which public records exist.

The proposed law would give discretion to public agencies over much of the CPRA. In an article published Friday, Terry Francke of the open government advocacy group Californians Aware described the move as allowing the legislature to “neuter” California public records law.

Why are these changes being proposed?

Under California law, the state is required to reimburse local governments for anything it has mandated them to do in the last 30-40 years.

The Legislative Analyst’s Office, which advises the state legislature on fiscal issues, claims the state could save tens of millions of dollars by not reimbursing public agencies for records requests.

In a post on the political blog Political Blotter Tuesday, state Sen. Mark Leno, chairman of the Senate Budget and Fiscal Committee, said the state has been abused by mandates in the past, with local governments billing the state outrageous amounts for minimal time and effort.

But as NBC San Diego’s Wendy Fry pointed out, the LAO can’t actually prove that passing the law would save any money.

Those estimates were not based on any claims or billings submitted to the state by local governments because none have ever been received. The state has never paid out any claims from local governments to comply with the law, and no local governments have ever submitted a claim for reimbursement.

“We didn’t do a detailed analysis. We lacked the hard data,” said analyst Brian Uhler with the LAO.

Department of Finance spokesman H.D. Palmer acknowledged that no exact number is known for how much the state could save.

Why are people upset over the changes?

Open government advocates and journalists fear that by allowing local government to choose whether or not to respond to records requests, it could become more difficult to keep tabs on the government’s activities.

(Disclosure: Voice of San Diego was among a group of media outlets that urged Gov. Jerry Brown to veto any legislation that weakens the CPRA, sent Wednesday.)

If a public agency neglected to respond to requests for records, the only way to get them would be through legal action.

For reporters, particularly investigative reporters, the CPRA is crucial. Reporters at Voice of San Diego regularly use the legislation to compel public agencies to provide records, and some of our most impactful stories have been built on data collected using the state’s public records law.

Some media reports and government watchdogs have branded the legislation a “sneak attack,” but Palmer pointed out that the legislation has been public for all to see since January. Indeed, U-T San Diego wrote about the proposed laws back in February.

A week of uncertainty

On Thursday morning, in response to the furor over the proposed changes to the public records law, the Assembly passed a new, duplicate budget bill restoring the mandates of the CPRA. That bill then went to the Senate, which was reluctant to vote on the bill at that time, and still hasn’t voted on it.

Concurrently, Steinberg and Leno said they would introduce an amendment to the California Constitution that would protect the CPRA and make local government responsible for all costs related to records requests.

Steinberg and Leno also said that the Senate would not pass the Assembly’s bill unless there is evidence of local elected officials not complying with the CPRA.

By Thursday afternoon, however, Steinberg had released a statement saying that the Senate would actually take up the amended bill passed by the Assembly after all.

Following Steinberg’s statement, the Sacramento Bee reported Thursday afternoon that Brown will also support the bill reinstating the mandates of the CPRA, following the Senate’s decision.

Brown announced Wednesday that he is in favor of a proposed amendment to the California Constitution to ensure the CPRA is protected.

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Alex Corey

Alex Corey is a reporting intern at Voice of San Diego. You can contact him directly at alex.corey@voiceofsandiego.org.

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