Gutting the Public Records Laws

Joe Mathews
Connecting California Columnist and Editor, Zócalo Public Square, Fellow at the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University and co-author of California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It (UC Press, 2010)

The only thing worse than the budget trailer bill SB 71, a rather naked attempt to gut the California Public Records Act, are the disingenuous defenses of the bill being offered by the administration, legislative Democrats, and local governments.

We are told that local governments will continue to follow the provisions of the public records act because it represents best practices, that making key provisions of the act into public options is good policy.

The problem is that the bill turns what are now requirements into rules that are at the discretion of local agencies. Under this legislation, a local agency receiving a records request will no longer have to respond within 10 days and explain the reasons why records are being provided or withheld. The local agency doesn’t even have to explain itself, other than by declaring in a meeting that it’s opting out. Requests for records will go to local agencies and will never be answered.

SB 71 also hurts efforts to collect and use public data for engagement and new civic tools, by letting local agencies determine the format in which they respond to records requests.

Such legislation should be getting more attention than it is – given the contempt it shows for citizens. The public records act is already too weak, and too often ignored by local governments. The law needs new enforcement – and new requirements so that more data can flow to citizens, and serve novel efforts at civic engagement. Instead, the legislature is letting localities thumb their noses at records act.

It’s not just the public that will lose. Local governments will lose too. Those who use this new power to ignore public records laws will draw more public anger and fuel conspiracy theories about their goings on. There’s way too much of that kind of thing in local communities.

Gov. Brown should veto this.

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