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Open Records, Build Trust

September 17, 2002

Governments will go to amazing lengths to keep public information away from the public. California's Freedom of Information Act is routinely ignored, in part because there's no penalty for refusing to release data. One study showed that 80% of the requests to local governments were denied when first made.

Around the country, legislatures are imposing more secrecy in the name of security. Fortunately that has not happened in California. But the state repeatedly has failed to put teeth into the California Public Records Act. The only recourse when information is denied is to sue, a long and costly process.

Senate leader John Burton (D-San Francisco) sponsored a sorely needed constitutional amendment to give the people a fundamental right of access to government information. SCA 7 passed the Senate 32 to 0 but died on the Assembly floor, in part because of opposition from local government.

Into the breach came Assemblyman Kevin Shelley (D-San Francisco) with the revival of an open records reform that passed in 1999 and 2000 but was vetoed each time by Gov. Gray Davis. Shelley's AB 822 provides that when a state agency or local government denies a request for public information, the decision can be appealed to the state attorney general. His office would have 20 days to declare whether the information should be released. An agency that still refused to cough up the information could be fined $100 a day, up to a total of $10,000. AB 822 whizzed through the Legislature without a single "no" vote.

Davis had objected that the legislation put the attorney general in a conflict of interest since he also represented the state agencies. And he complained of the cost. Now, Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca opposes AB 822 because it would "create additional burdens on public agencies." Sponsors say there is no indication that the bureaucracy would be overwhelmed by frivolous requests for information. In fact, the legislation would help speed the resolution of cases that now end up in court for months or years.

The Shelley bill fixes the conflict problem in any case where the attorney general already is representing the agency involved. Any cost in paper handling is likely to be far less than the legal fees that agencies pay to defend their denials in court.

Citizen access to public records is a fundamental right in a democracy, whether it's the content of a highway construction contract or the musings of a consultant's report. Most denials probably are made just because officials don't want to be bothered. But there are plenty of documented cases in which information is kept secret to cover up mismanagement or wrongdoing. The more light that shines on government, the more people will be able to trust it. Davis can help bolster trust significantly by signing AB 822 into law.

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