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California legislative leaders clash over public records' access

Assembly speaker offers plan to rescind governor's changes to let governments opt out of parts of Public Records Act. But Senate's leader and governor reject plan.

June 19, 2013|By Anthony York, Los Angeles Times
  • State Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, accompanied by Budget Committee Chairman Mark Leno, announced that the Senate will take up a constitutional amendment to address a budget bill that threatens public access to information.
State Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, accompanied by Budget… (Rich Pedroncelli, AP )

SACRAMENTO — Facing statewide criticism for taking action that could hinder government transparency, the Legislature's top leaders Wednesday clashed over whether to reverse course and oppose Gov. Jerry Brown's proposed changes in California's public records law.

Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez (D-Los Angeles) offered legislation that would in effect rescind the proposal, which both the Assembly and Senate passed Friday as part of the state budget package.

The original measure, which Brown is still expected to sign, would allow local governments to opt out of certain parts of the law, saving the state the cost of reimbursing officials for producing some records.

Both Brown and state Senate leader Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) rejected Pérez's proposal — in effect killing it — and said Californians could weigh in on the matter later in a constitutional amendment that would go on the state ballot.

In a statement Wednesday evening, Brown said residents should have prompt access to government records, and he supported "enshrining these protections in California's Constitution."

A ballot measure, if passed, presumably would put an end to the option of skipping some requirements and force local governments to absorb any expense incurred in providing records to the public.

Under existing law, officials have 10 days to respond to a request for records and are required to make the documents available electronically. The proposal now before Brown would allow local agencies and commissions to exempt themselves from both requirements with a voice vote.

The same vote would permit them to reject requests without explanation and would no longer require them to help citizens identify existing information.

Dozens of news organizations Wednesday criticized the proposal. A group of big-city mayors who met with Brown in the Capitol, including Los Angeles Mayor-elect Eric Garcetti, called on legislators and the governor to protect public access to government information.

"For them to stick this into a larger budget just seems to be corrosive to democracy," said Garcetti, noting that many of the mayors he met with Tuesday shared his views. "We all said we would like to see it [taken out]."

Wednesday afternoon, Pérez announced that the Assembly was changing course.

"We were opposed to the change from the outset," said Pérez spokesman John Vigna. "It was included as part of a larger budget deal, but seeing the reaction since, we understand Californians care deeply about access to public records."

But Steinberg called the bill, written by a legislative committee, a sensible cost-saving measure. He said he believed it would have minimal effect on public access to information.

He also said Sen. Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) would introduce a constitutional amendment next week that would require local officials to abide by current law and pay for its implementation. That proposal will go before voters next fall if it receives approval from two-thirds of each legislative house.

Jim Ewert, a lobbyist for the California Newspaper Publishers Assn., said publishers would strongly support a constitutional amendment ensuring public access to government records.

Garcetti said that even if compliance does become optional, Los Angeles would continue to abide by existing law. "Our worry is not that we wouldn't do it," he said. "It's that a Bell wouldn't do it, or a small town."

Times staff writer Patrick McGreevy contributed to this report.

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