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California and the West

Government Secrecy Seen as a Problem

Poll: Majority of voters back release of more information. Many support strengthening public access laws.

October 25, 1998|BETTINA BOXALL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Reporters and freedom of information advocates have long complained that public access to government documents in California is eroding. But they have sometimes wondered if anyone else cared.

Now they have a poll that indicates at least a slice of the public does.

A recent statewide survey of voters who regularly go to the polls found that nearly half considered government secrecy to be a serious problem.

Strong majorities favored the release of a wide array of information now typically withheld, such as disciplinary records for state judges, the identities of juvenile criminals and information about unsafe products that remains confidential in lawsuit settlements.

The poll, commissioned by an alliance of journalism and 1st Amendment advocacy groups called the Coalition for Open Government, also found substantial support for strengthening the state's freedom of information laws.

"The poll results are very heartening" because they suggest that a cross-section of California voters "feels very strongly about this," said Terry Francke, general counsel for the California First Amendment Coalition, one of the sponsoring groups.

Francke said voters, rather than the more general population, were polled because they are the ones who hold sway with state lawmakers who tend to assume that it "is just the press that cares, that no one else has any sense of investment in the issue."

Conducted in early September and released today, the poll surveyed 800 people randomly selected from a list of registered voters who have cast ballots in recent elections.

It was commissioned against a backdrop of growing concern in media and 1st Amendment circles that public access to government information in the state is declining.

"Generally, those who work with access laws day to day have the sense that either through agency practices or specific court decisions or legislative erosion, things are getting worse," Francke said. "More is happening behind the scenes."

He cited a court decision exempting the appointment calendar of then-Gov. George Deukmejian from public disclosure laws and another ruling that the telephone log of a city councilman conducting official business was confidential.

A recent legislative report found that the 30-year-old state Public Records Act is routinely violated but carries no real penalties for noncompliance.

At the same time, Gov. Pete Wilson has vetoed several pieces of legislation aimed at widening access, including bills dealing with the availability of computerized government records and the disclosure of votes taken in closed session by state boards and commissions.

Wilson, a spokesman said this week, believes that the state public records law "serves its purpose well" and does not need to be strengthened.

The poll, conducted by Fairbank, Maslin, Maullin & Associates of Santa Monica, found voter support for public access to a number of personnel-related records usually off limits to the public.

Among them: police investigation records in solved cases; information in state and county files that deals with child neglect, abuse or murder; disciplinary records for law enforcement officers; and job performance records for public employees, including teachers, judges and social workers.

Although roughly half of those polled agreed that state law guarantees access to most information kept by state or local governments, more than half also agreed that city councils and school boards conduct too much important business in private.

Asked if they would support a state constitutional amendment guaranteeing access to state and local government information, 67% said they would definitely or probably vote yes.

"There's a definite public interest and desire to ensure that [government] information on things that affect people's well-being and lives are really accessible," said pollster Richard Maullin. "It is a topic people understand and respond to rather quickly."

The survey was paid for by the California Newspaper Publishers Assn. and a grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. The Southern California chapter of the national Society for Professional Journalists, whose membership includes Los Angeles Times staffers, also was involved in planning the poll.

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