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Please don’t take my sunshine away

Posted: June 25, 2013 5:28 p.m.
Updated: June 25, 2013 5:28 p.m.
 

Last week, the California Legislature passed a $96.3 billion budget.

Most discussions coming out of the one-party budget focus on the fact that the budget used the governor’s more conservative revenue projections, but legislative Democrats won in their push for higher spending, particularly for welfare grants, Common Core standards, and a scholarship entitlement program that does not protect students from tuition hikes.

Worthy of public attention, however, are two trailer bills, Assembly Bill 76 and Senate Bill 71, designed to gut the California Public Records Act, also known as the “sunshine law,” which allows the press and public to access most state and local government documents.

Currently, the law is very similar to the Freedom of Information Act — except for the fact that “the people have the right of access to information concerning the conduct of the people’s business” is embedded into Article 1 of the California Constitution due to California Proposition 59 (the Sunshine Amendment).


The trailer bills would permit local governments and agencies, school districts, hospitals and water districts to “opt out” of certain parts of the California Public Records Act. This means they could:

-Ignore the current 10-day time limit in the law to tell you if they will comply with your request or deny it

-Deny your request without any explanation

-Refuse to give you an estimate as to how long it will take to provide documents you have requested (i.e. put your documents in indefinite detention)

-Decide that they will no longer provide assistance to people in filling out the forms for document requests

-Refuse to give you documents in electronic format that are already in electronic format. They can decide to only provide you with hard copies even if the electronic format is available.

The “opt out” simply requires that they announce it orally at the first meeting of the year. It does not even have to be put into writing or published!

The authors of both trailer bills claim that they do not intend to change anything with regard to public access of public records.

How in the heck are you, average citizen, supposed to gain access to a public record if the agency doesn’t even have to tell you if it will give it to you or not? What are you supposed to do if you are denied the record with no explanation?

How long are you supposed to wait for a record that has yet to be denied? What if you can’t get the record you want because the form isn’t filled out properly and the agency employees won’t help you?

How will you know if the form is filled out correctly? What is your recourse if you feel the agency hasn’t complied with a legitimate request?

On a more personal level, what if you need a record for insurance claim purposes? Who decides how fast your request is processed verses your neighbor’s request?

Journalists, too, will be impacted by the change. How many stories would have gone unreported without the information gleaned from public record requests?

How will watchdog groups function?

The California Newspaper Publishers Association weighed in with a statement from general counsel Jim Ewert, who said in a letter to Gov. Brown: “The pending changes to the Public Records Act are an affront to Californians who participate in local government and will make it easier for public agencies to ignore requests or provide no reason at all for denying them.”

The executive director of the California League of Cities, Chris McKenzie, tried to put a better spin on it by saying,

“The sky isn’t falling. We didn’t ask for this but the consequences of providing information is very, very significant, especially for elected officials. Cities will continue to act in a responsible manner.”

This seems to beg the question: If governments and agencies are so forthcoming with information that is not flattering to them, then why did we need the law in the first place?

State Sen. Joel Anderson has also lobbied the governor to stop the provisions, saying: “In allowing public agencies to opt out of important public records act mandates, the bill limits transparency of public documents and encourages secrecy in government.”

Brown released a statement Wednesday saying he supports putting the issue on the ballot and letting the voters decide.

With all due respect, Gov. Brown, it was decided in 1968. We expect you to use the line-item veto on this horrible attack on local government transparency.

Alice Khosravy is a Santa Clarita Valley resident. “Right Here, Right Now” runs Fridays in The Signal and rotates among local Republican writers.

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