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Blocking the Sunshine

July 05, 2002

Who'd have thought that the opponents of open government could include the League of California Cities, the California State Assn. of Counties and the University of California? All of them unfortunately disapprove of a state constitutional amendment that would broaden open records laws that have been restricted over the years by court decisions. Shame on them.

Senate President Pro Tem John Burton (D-San Francisco), the sponsor of Senate Constitutional Amendment 7, notes that current law contains no real punishment for any government agency that wrongly withholds information.

This ineffective statute barred reporters from digging into scandals at the state Department of Insurance and kept secret for half a century the records of a legislative committee that investigated prominent Californians for alleged involvement in Communist Party activities.

Burton says his proposal simply shifts the burden of proof. Currently, the news media and members of the public must first show why they should be allowed access to government documents and records. SCA 7 says government agencies must demonstrate why materials--for instance, those that involve personnel or legal matters--should be kept secret.

Though the confidentiality of certain information that the state keeps, such as individual Medi-Cal records, should certainly be protected, the Legislature should be selective about allowing loopholes.

Opponents say the proposed law is too broad. Their argument sounds like bureaucratic protection of paperwork.

Burton's amendment passed the Senate last Friday on a vote of 34 to 0. Now it's in the Assembly, where Burton expects opponents to harden their positions and make it more difficult to put the measure before state voters in the Nov. 5 general election. The amendment requires approval by two-thirds of the members of each house to be added to the ballot. Time is short. The secretary of state says the amendment must clear the Legislature by July 17, though sometimes these deadlines can be stretched.

Citizens have cause these days to distrust officials who try to keep governmental information secret for any but the most urgent reasons. Preventing SCA 7 from getting on the ballot would represent another serious denial of that information.

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