Local government agencies will no longer be required to follow key provisions of California’s Public Records Act in a bill that’s part of the budget state lawmakers approved over the weekend. As KPCC’s Julie Small reports, Governor Jerry Brown is expected to enact the change—which is less drastic than one he proposed.
California law requires local governments to respond to public requests for information within 10 days. If they’re unable to meet those requests, they have to explain why. Both those requirements are about to be suspended for local governments. Peter Scheer with the First Amendment Coalition says that creates opportunities for local authorities to cut off public access to information.
“People are going to file public records request for records that they need, and under this new legal language a local city or a county is going to be able to write back and say ‘denied’ and they’re not going to tell you why… and I think that’s just crazy," says Scheer.
The state maintains this is a budget move, because it has to reimburse local governments for complying with some aspects of records requests. The Department of Finance estimates that exempting local governments from those requirements could save the state tens of millions of dollars a year.
But the Department’s H.D. Palmer says local governments can adopt their own process — and he expects they will.
“We believe that these are best practices that local governments have and will continue to abide by,” says Palmer.
He says the public still has a legal right to information about local governments—and an expectation they’ll get it.
“If local governments choose not to abide by these best practices, they have to tell everyone publicly in an open meeting, and they could conceivably be leaving themselves open to litigation if they don’t abide by them,” says Palmer.
Jean Hurst with the California State Association of Counties agrees. After all, local governments have provided public access to data for more than a decade now.
"I think a local agency would be hard pressed to say in an open meeting, ‘We’re no longer going to respond in a timely manner to your request for public records.’ That would be just surprising to me," says Hurst.
Hurst thinks the public expectation of transparency, and the threat of lawsuits, will prompt agencies to comply with the entire Public Records Act—“for the most part”.
But Jim Ewert—an attorney for the California Newspaper Publishers Association --thinks it’s naive to expect all local agencies will fall in line. Case in point: the former administrator for the City of Bell.
“Can you imagine Robert Rizzo having the opportunity to just say no, or actually not say anything at all--when people ask for public information," says Ewert.
Ewert hopes to get the legislature to reinstate the provisions of California’s Public Records Act they just voted to suspend. He believes it will soon be clear that this was a big mistake.