In case you missed it, California’s Public Records Act is in danger of being gutted, and the impact on the public’s right to know could be severe. State legislative leaders — including East Bay state Senators Loni Hancock and Mark DeSaulnier — quietly tucked a last-minute bill that weakens the transparency law into the package of budget legislation for the next fiscal year.
Despite outrage over the bill, Governor Jerry Brown strongly indicated last night that he plans to sign the legislation, which proponents argue will save the state from having to reimburse local governments millions of dollars a year when they comply with the Public Records Act. The bill would allow local governments and public agencies to reject public records requests without citing a reason, and would let local governments ignore the current requirement that they respond to requests within ten days.
Not surprisingly, media organizations around the state have responded with outrage. And the Express has joined them. Below is a letter — signed by the Express and several other local media organizations, including the Center for Investigative Reporting, the Oakland Tribune, San Jose Mercury News, and the San Francisco Chronicle — that was sent to Governor Brown’s office last night. (You can download a PDF version here.)
The Honorable Edmund G. Brown Jr.
Office of the Governor
State Capitol, Suite 1173
Sacramento, CA 95814
Via Fax: 916-558-3160
June 19, 2013
Dear Gov. Brown:
We are a broad coalition of media organizations joining our colleagues at the California Newspaper Publishers Association to urge you to veto SB 71 and AB 76 if either weakens the California Public Records Act. Although we are encouraged by your announcement late today supporting the public’s right to know, we were stunned by this blatant and unwarranted attack.
As experts on compliance with our state’s current Public Records Act, we can assure you that many local jurisdictions will not — as some legislators suggest — voluntarily abide by best practices. In the real world, cities, counties, schools and government boards already spend abundant time and money trying not to comply with the act. Inordinate delays are typical, illegal denials common.
The voluntary system originally proposed under SB 71 and AB 76 will not save money, either. Instead, it would force news organizations and governments into expensive legal battles. This will burden governments even further, and place restraints on the free press.
We are especially concerned about the electronic records provision. This often is the simplest way for a government body to fulfill a request, saving time and trees. It also allows journalists to quickly analyze trends and spot aberrations hidden in the millions of rows and columns. If this is not an attempt to withhold public information, why make it harder for all to do their jobs?
California already is known for having one of the weakest public records laws in the nation. This is a shameful ranking that deserves your attention.
Jim Boren, Executive Editor/Senior Vice President
The Fresno Bee
Ken Brusic, Editor and Senior Vice President
Orange County Register
Greg Burton, Executive Editor
The Desert Sun, Palm Springs
Ward Bushee, Editor and Executive Vice President
San Francisco Chronicle
David J. Butler, Editor and Senior Vice President
San Jose Mercury News, Oakland Tribune, Contra Costa Times and sister papers;
Vice President for News, MediaNews Group,
Representing the company’s 31 dailies in California
Sandra Duerr, Executive Editor and Vice President
The Tribune, San Luis Obispo
Nels Jensen, Editor/VP of News & Content
The Press-Enterprise, Riverside
Mark Katches, Editorial Director
The Center for Investigative Reporting, Berkeley
The nation’s oldest and largest nonprofit investigative unit
Scott Lewis, CEO
Voice of San Diego
John Moore, Editor
Ventura County Star
Kathleen Richards and Robert Gammon, Co-Editors
East Bay Express
Norberto Santana, Editor-in-Chief
Voice of Orange County
Russ Stanton, Vice President, Content
Southern California Public Radio
Joyce Terhaar, Executive Editor & SVP
The Sacramento Bee and sacbee.com