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Davis Vetoes Hypodermic Needle Bill

Politics: Measure would have made it easier to buy syringes. Governor also takes action on open meetings, public records.

October 02, 2002|NANCY VOGEL and DAN MORAIN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

SACRAMENTO — In the final hours of a legislative year in which he signed 1,173 bills and vetoed 264, Gov. Gray Davis on Monday killed a measure that would have made it easier to buy hypodermic needles.

He also took action on bills dealing with government whistle-blowers, open meetings and public records.

Adults could have purchased as many as 30 syringes without a prescription under a bill that Davis said he vetoed because it didn't do enough to get drug addicts into treatment.

AIDS activists decried the veto, saying that thousands of people will become afflicted with HIV or infectious hepatitis by sharing dirty needles. California is one of only six states that require, with some exceptions, a prescription to buy syringes.

"This is a victory of politics over sound public health," said Fred Dillon, policy director for the San Francisco AIDS Foundation. "There is no justifiable reason for the governor to have vetoed this."

In his veto message, Davis criticized Senate Bill 1785 by Sen. John Vasconcellos (D-Santa Clara) for undermining authorized needle-exchange programs, which require a one-for-one exchange of used and sterile needles.

The governor also vetoed SB 1734 by Vasconcellos, which would have made it easier to establish such needle exchanges. Under a law Davis signed in 1999, a city or county must declare a local health crisis every two to three weeks in order to maintain a needle-exchange program. The Vasconcellos bill would have required just a once-a-year declaration by a city council or county board of supervisors.

"It's very troubling to us that he would choose to do this," Dillon said. "It feels like he decided this was a disposable population."

For the third year running, Davis rejected legislation to open more government records to public inspection.

The latest bill to fall to his veto pen is Assembly Bill 822 by Assemblyman Kevin Shelley (D-San Francisco), who is running for secretary of state against Republican Keith Olberg.

The bill would have empowered the state attorney general to review denials of requests for government records. It also would have allowed people whose requests were denied to collect $100 for each day a record was improperly withheld.

Davis said the bill would create a conflict for the attorney general, whose deputies must defend agencies that violate the state Public Records Act. Davis also said his administration is "responding timely, and there is very little litigation challenging" denials of records.

Terry Francke of the First Amendment Coalition, a group funded largely by news companies, said the survey to which Davis referred was superficial and did not address compliance by local governments.

Earlier this year, Assembly Republicans blocked a proposal to place before voters a constitutional amendment to provide greater access to government records. The author of that measure, Senate President Pro Tem John Burton (D-San Francisco), has said he plans to reintroduce it in January.

Francke lauded that step, saying the issue needs to be put to a statewide vote. Governors, he said, will veto bills that reduce their power to withhold documents. "Simple legislation that can be vetoed is not the answer," Francke said.

The California Newspaper Publishers Assn. took a neutral stance on another bill signed by the governor. AB 2645 by Assemblyman Sam Aanestad (R-Grass Valley) allows utility districts and local governments to meet in secret session with private security consultants to discuss threats to water and electrical systems.

The new law widens an exception to the 49-year-old Ralph M. Brown Act, which requires legislative bodies to meet openly, publicly and with adequate notice.

"In the wake of the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001," Davis wrote in signing the bill, "greater confidentiality for local and state public meetings is warranted when issues of public safety are being discussed."

Davis vetoed a bill encouraging government attorneys to report crimes and fraud.

Other public employees who expose misdeeds are already shielded from workplace retaliation. AB 363 by Assemblyman Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) would have protected government attorneys from professional discipline or the loss of a license for disclosing client confidences.

The measure stems from the case of Department of Insurance attorney Cindy Ossias, who leaked documents to a legislative committee investigating alleged wrongdoing by Insurance Commissioner Chuck Quackenbush in 2000.

Quackenbush tried to fire Ossias, and the State Bar investigated her for violating client confidentiality rules. She was ultimately exonerated by the bar and reinstated by Quackenbush's successor.

In his veto message, Davis wrote: "The effective operation of our legal system depends on the fundamental duty of confidentiality owed by lawyers to their clients."

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