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Money, Not Principles, Sparks Public Records Brawl

John Wildermuth
Journalist and Political Commentator

The very public brawl over potential changes to the state’s Public Records Act has been billed as a battle over principles.

It’s not. It’s all about the money.

When the media, First Amendment activists, local government officials and, sadly, most legislators realized that the budget bill the Legislature passed last week made it optional for cities, counties and other government agencies to release public records, all hell broke loose.

Newspapers, environmentalists, small government conservatives and political types of every persuasion screamed that Gov. Jerry Brown and the Legislature were trying to water down the Public Records Act and vowed it would never happen.

It was a furor the governor was happy to see.

Brown, state Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, Assembly Speaker John Perez and other legislative leaders had no intention of trimming back efforts to make government more transparent, which in California is the political equivalent of Mom and apple pie.

They were, however, very interested in shifting the multi-million dollar cost of complying with all those record requests from the state’s pockets to the local governments that had to field those public record act inquiries in the first place.

The plan was sneaky, but relatively straightforward. California generally requires that if the Legislature makes a law requiring local governments to take action that costs money, the state has to pick up the costs.

By making it optional for the cities and counties to comply with the public records rule, it was no longer a state mandate, which means the local guys had to pay.

But here’s the sneaky part. Brown and every other professional politician in the state knew the public – and the media – was never going to let government at any level keep public records private. Even if disclosure were optional, the pressure would force cities and counties to keep responding to those record requests, only now on their own dimes.

It worked. Government agencies across the state vowed to follow the existing law, even if they had to pay the costs themselves. Which was, of course, the governor’s plan.

And when legislators started to sweat under the media heat, Brown, Steinberg, et al had a solution: Let the people decide. An amendment on next year’s ballot would enshrine the right to view and receive public records in the state Constitution – along with language making it clear that local government would have to pay their own bills.

It’s an old, old story in politics. Discussions about costs of government programs typically resembles the kids’ game of hot potato, with politicians at each level of government trying to quickly hand the bill off to someone else.

Governments at all levels often are far less interested in the actual policies or programs than in who is going to end up paying for them.

When the Assembly and state Senate agreed Thursday on a bill that would dial back the records act changes and a spokesman for Brown said the governor would sign it, newspaper editors across the state nearly dislocated their shoulders patting themselves on the back.

The Contra Costa Times called it “a resounding victory for open government advocates and the California media.”

“Jerry Brown abandons plan to limit access to government records,” read a headline in the Los Angeles Times.

An editorial in the Sacramento Bee called the entire episode “messy and embarrassing.”

Well, messy is right, but that’s pretty much guaranteed when raw politics takes place in public view. But there’s a real question as to just how embarrassed Brown and other legislative leaders are about the affair.

After all, the new agreement is being labeled as “a short term fix” until a more permanent solution could be found.

That would be next year’s constitution amendment, which would permanently dump the costs of public record requests on local government.

John Wildermuth is a longtime writer on California politics.

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