California’s Voters Asked to Weigh Public Records Act Amendment
Last June, Governor Brown abandoned plans regarding public-record access. The California Legislature and Governor Brown came under fire for furthering legislation that would have weaken the public’s access to government records. At the time, the proposed budget severed the state’s financial commitment to reimburse local government agencies for public records requests since it was mandated by the State. (1)
This was the motivating factor since the state wanted out of its financial commitment that cost the state tens of millions of dollars in costs annually to comply. As the state cannot constitutionally impose mandates upon local government without reimbursing the cost, the proposed budgetary action would effectively lift the legal requirement for local government agencies to comply with the Public Records Act. (2)
Brown’s bill, had it passed, would have allowed local agencies and commissions to exempt themselves from both requirements with a voice vote. The same votes would permit them to reject requests for records without explanation and would no longer require them to help citizens identify existing information. If approved, the documents could be released in a basically unusable form, such as on old fashioned carbon-copy paper. (4)
This failed attempt would have severely limited public access to government documents, that would have been the ultimate indignity to the State, its taxpayers, news organizations, and various watchdog organizations who undertake to keep state and local representatives accountable, transparent, and ethical to their constituents by requesting and reviewing pertinent documents and records.
The California Public Records Act, was signed into law by Gov. Ronald Reagan 45 years ago that was expanded under Gov. Gray Davis. It declares that access to government information is a “fundamental and necessary right of every person in the state.” The provision, first proposed by Brown in January that was included in a budget plan approved by lawmakers, would have allowed local elected bodies, namely, Glendale’s City Council, to opt out of parts of the law — specifically the current requirement that they respond to public requests within 10 days, by making records available electronically when possible or require legal written response for refusing such a records request. (3)
In response to the outpouring of criticism, Senator Mark Leno and Senate President pro Tempore Darrell Steinberg co-authored SCA 3, a constitutional amendment that would enshrine the Public Records Act in the California State Constitution. California voters will be asked whether the public’s right to review government documents is important enough to be protected by the state constitution after yesterday’s successful vote on the amendment in the Legislature. SCA 3 passed the Assembly on Tuesday with no opposition. Voters will decide on June 3 of next year. (1)
Should the constitutional amendment pass in the June 2014 primary election, local government agencies will be required by law to adhere to the California Public Records Act (PRA) and the Brown Act but the state will no longer be required reimburse the associated costs of compliance. If approved by voters, SCA 3 would permanently uphold and protect a person’s right to inspect public records and attend public meetings. (1)
Obviously, SCA 3 will have an impact on local jurisdictions; including the possibility for increased costs to municipalities should the Legislature decide to expand requirements in the future. However, these costs are minimal. What is important is the public’s right to have access to local government documentation to keep public officials honest by maintaining transparency. “The state should not have to provide a fiscal incentive to local governments so that they comply with these important transparency laws,” remarked Leno in his official statement.