Under intense pressure from the state’s media organizations and government watchdogs, California’s legislative leaders on Wednesday backed down from proposed changes to a key transparency law that would have restricted the public’s access to government records.
“To be clear, this means that the California Public Records Act will remain intact without any changes as part of the budget — consistent with the Assembly’s original action,” Assembly Speaker John Pérez, D-Los Angeles said in a statement.
Critics had called for Gov. Jerry Brown to veto the measure, saying it would have gutted access to local government records by changing the law from a legal requirement to a “suggested best practice.”
The California Newspaper Publisher’s Association called for a veto and all of the state’s major newspapers, including this one, ran editorials on Wednesday deploring the proposed changes. Perez said the Assembly would restore the funding that reimburses local governments to comply with the law.
Assembly Speaker pro Tem Nora Campos, D-San Jose, said “we’ll be looking forward to the Senate following the lead of the Assembly.”
“This is important information for individuals to have,” Campos said. “I think this is good news for local government, and they’re not in a position to have to make any decisions” about whether to respond to public records inquiries.
State Senate Majority Leader Ellen Corbett, D-San Leandro, was on the phone with a reporter from this newspaper when news of the Assembly bill broke and said it was too soon to know for sure what the Senate would do. A news conference with Senate leaders is set for late Wednesday afternoon.
“I’m very open to it,” Corbett said of the new bill. “We champion making public information available to the public.”
A spokesman for Brown did not respond to a request for comment.
Before the new bill broke Wednesday afternoon, Bay Area lawmakers who voted in favor of the bill said they supported the public records law — they just don’t want the state to pay for the cost of complying with it.
“Why the state should have to backfill local jurisdictions for something that really is inherently a governmental function that everybody should be complying with is beyond me,” said Assemblyman Mark Stone, D-Monterey Bay, a member of the Assembly Budget Committee.
Assemblyman Marc Levine, D-San Rafael, agreed, and said he though cities would still respond to public records request even if they have to pay for it themselves.
“If there’s a problem, we’ll go in and fix it,” Levine said. “There’s an always an opportunity to pass another law.”
But state Sen. Leland Yee, D-San Francisco — the only Bay Area legislator who voted against the original bill — says the situation is much more urgent.
“The history of local government has been that this is burdensome, it costs us a lot of money and we would rather not do it,” Yee said. “Absent a requirement that local government follow the Public Records Act, they are not going to do it.”
Language inserted into a budget bill last week would have allowed local governments to turn down requests for records without citing a legal reason. It would no longer have required government officials to respond to records requests within 10 days or force them to help the public by describing what records exist.
Gov. Brown had said he favored some changes aimed at reducing costs, but details did not emerge about the until a rider bill to the budget was introduced July 12, just three days before the budget deadline.
San Jose Mercury New Today
By Thomas Peele and Mike Rosenberg