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Beef Up Access to Records

January 17, 2003

California has laws giving the people access to government records and meetings and requiring that officials make their decisions and take action only in the open with advance notice. It wouldn't seem necessary to have a constitutional amendment to guarantee this basic right of democracy. But it is. The Legislature should stop dilly-dallying and pass Senate Constitutional Amendment 1, by Senate President Pro Tem John Burton (D-San Francisco), and put the measure to the voters at the next election.

The problem is that existing open records laws put the burden on the citizen seeking information. Agencies can delay or ignore public records requests without fear of penalty or punishment. A citizen's only recourse is to go to court and get a judge to order the information made public, but cases are costly and can take months or years.

The Legislature and governor have been reluctant to pass stronger laws. Sen. Byron Sher (D-Stanford) tried twice to strengthen the Open Records Act by allowing the attorney general's office to resolve a disputed request short of going to court. Gov. Gray Davis vetoed the bills. The Assembly let a similar bill fail last year.

The Burton amendment does not specifically change the Open Records Act. Rather, it generally says that access to information concerning the people's business "is a fundamental and necessary right of every person in this state."

Burton and his amendment's sponsors, including the California Newspaper Publishers Assn. and the California First Amendment Coalition, say the amendment would shift the burden. Rather than the citizen having to prove he or she had a right to the information, the agency would have to demonstrate why it should remain secret. That is the way it should be.

Burton's amendment passed the Senate last year 32 to 0 but failed to get out of committee in the Assembly. Law enforcement agencies and local governments, along with the League of California Cities and the California State Assn. of Counties, objected that it would reveal information they think should be kept from the public, such as personal information on police and sheriff's officers, closed court documents and trade secrets. But the amendment specifically exempts certain law enforcement and judicial records and states clearly that nothing in SCA 1 would supersede the constitutional right to privacy.

Opponents also objected that the proposed amendment was too vague. Well, constitutional amendments are supposed to be broad, general statements of principle. State law already spells out the details. The amendment would be a slap to the head of those public servants who forget.

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