I know Sacramento is located geographically in California, but there are days when it acts so contrary to what is happening around it, that it makes one wonder whether the Capitol is somehow situated in a parallel universe. Let me get this straight: at a time when the public has learned via public records requests of IRS overreach, pervasive snooping by the NSA into our phone records, and Justice Department delving into the computers of journalists, this is the moment when Governor Brown and Senate Democrats choose to tamper with the Records Act, making it easier for local governments to deny access to public documents?

Did I mention this is year is also the 60th anniversary of the Brown Act? Well, I guess we go from celebrating “open meetings” to allowing more “closed documents”…

A few emails to friends in local government about the prospect of passing SB 71 resulted in some informative responses. One recently retired city manager from the Central Coast told me, “Human nature being what it is, when under high pressure there is always the temptation to make exceptions…in such situations I have always found it helpful to say [to another government employee] ‘I understand your interest – but what you want us to do is not legal’ (which is a tad more powerful than saying, ‘it’s not best practices’).”

Another municipal official from the Bay Area who has led some very exciting “open government” projects, after noting, “I’m struck by the poor use of language in these bills,” added, “I would be opposed to any change that could result in less transparency at the local level.”  But he also said that as more public records are digitized, the costs for the public accessing this information will decrease over time…but not today. In some ways, this speaks to the current machinations in the Sec State’s office over releasing the Cal-Access campaign database in an easy-to-access, cheap/free digital format.

It wasn’t until reading Anthony York’s piece in Tuesday’s LA Times that the real problem with SB 71 came into view. York reminded us that it was this same Public Record Acts that helped Times’ reporters uncover the scandals in Bell and other places. As someone who has consulted with that city as it has made tremendous strides in both transparency and civic engagement over the last couple years, York’s interview with Bell resident Donna Gannon posed the possibility that this progress might recede.

As York writes, Gannon “worries that changing the law could disable what little civic engagement exists in cities across the state. ‘Too much is going to be hidden from us,’ she said. Government officials, she noted, ‘work for us.’”

Gannon understands. It’s not the citizens of cities like La Jolla and Menlo Park who are going to be hurt by SB 71, but those who live in places like Cudahy and Desert Hot Springs and East Palo Alto. Allowing cities out of their Public Records Act obligations for the sake of saving money in Sacramento, mostly affects fiscally challenged municipalities where records requests can be dismissed as too expensive in a tough fiscal environment. In this case, it will harm public engagement in cities that so desperately need it.