Budget could prevent public access to government records

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State of California Capitol

Gov. Jerry Brown is expected to sign a version of the state budget that includes a proposal that could limit access to basic government records, the Los Angeles Times reported Wednesday.

The recently added proposal would allow officials to reject records requests with a voice vote, contrary to current California law that requires officials to respond to public record requests within 10 days and to make the documents electronically available. It would also allow officials to reject requests with no explanation.

The budget was passed by lawmakers last week, and Brown’s administration has indicated he intends to sign the budget. To block the open-records proposal, Brown would have to reject the entire budget.

Defenders of the legislation, including Brown, predict little change and say that most local governments will continue to provide records, but the California Newspaper Publishers Association disagrees.

“If the local agencies were predisposed to share information with the public, there wouldn’t be a need for a public records act to begin with,” association lobbyist Jim Ewert told the Times.

Ewert said Brown previously enacted a temporary suspension on open-meeting laws for local governments and held private phone meetings with Los Angeles County supervisors to discuss a prison overhaul plan. The district attorney’s office later said the private meetings were in violation of the law.

Many news organizations rely on the current open-record laws to gather information about state and local government activity, and often use them to expose information that would be hidden otherwise.  

The Times said their use of open-record laws has included information about child abuse investigations and pension paid to public retirees, and has led them to uncover questionable spending in public institutions, including the recent scandal in the city of Bell.

The California Public Records Act was signed into law by Gov. Ronald Reagan in 1968, and was expanded by Gov. Gray Davis in 2000 and 2001.

Brown requested the change as a cost-saving measure, according to the Times

The Legislative Analyst’s Office has estimated that the proposal could save tens of millions of dollars a year because it would relieve the state from reimbursing costs or providing some records to city and county governments, the Times reported.

The proposal is one of 21 budget-related pieces on a larger bill addressing government administration. The bill also includes measures about state spending, the creation of a grant program for trauma centers, changes to the workers’ compensation system, among other items.