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Changes to Public Records Act stir controversy

Image of Glendale City Hall.
Image of Glendale City Hall.
Flickr/ T.Hoffarth

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If, as expected, Governor Jerry Brown signs Senate Bill 76 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.  

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to the legislation mandating changes to the Public Records Act as Senate Bill 71. The correct legislation is Senate Bill 76.