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Pressure makes Capitol backtrack on gutting public records law

Gov. Brown and the Legislature reverse course on allowing local governments the option of blocking access to public records — thanks to outrage from media and citizens.

June 23, 2013|George Skelton | Capitol Journal

SACRAMENTO —You don't normally see politicians who are firmly planted in their positions suddenly do acrobatic 180-degree turns.

But last week was very abnormal in California's Capitol. Odds are what happened won't be repeated for a long while.

It showed the power of public pressure — and the dexterity of successful politicians quick to recognize the need to backpedal.

Actually, it was entertaining to watch.

In sum, first the Assembly speaker, then the Senate leader and governor, reversed course rather than continue to take heavy flak.

It involved the sensitive issue of government secrecy — a sensitivity the politicians initially had failed to grasp.

Let's back up.

In order to guarantee the citizens' access to government information, Gov. Ronald Reagan signed the California Public Records Act in 1968. Over the years it was expanded. And local governments were allowed to bill the state for performing certain chores mandated by the act.

Gov. Jerry Brown didn't like paying up. And who can blame him? Local governments should foot the tab themselves for carrying out their duties.

In his January budget proposal, Brown sought to avoid dishing out state reimbursements to local governments by eliminating the mandate and making compliance with key parts of the records act optional. On June 14, both houses of the Democratic-controlled Legislature passed a version of Brown's plan as a little-noticed piece of a larger budget bill.

Then the public bombardment began, stunning Capitol pols.

Newspaper editorials — especially — but also open-government activists and many individuals denounced Brown and the Legislature, urging the governor to veto the bill. Countless e-mails and phone calls poured into the Capitol. Los Angeles Mayor-elect Eric Garcetti called Sacramento's action "corrosive to democracy."

Investigative reporters use the records act to uncover incompetence and corruption in local governments, such as Bell. Under the legislation Brown was about to sign, if it had been in effect during the Bell probe, city officials could have covered up their corruption by blocking access to telling data.

As the public outrage grew, Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez (D-Sacramento) decided to take matters into his own hands. He became the hero, the leader of the backtrack.

Pérez had never liked the idea of gutting the records act in the first place, he says. The Assembly's version of the budget hadn't included it. But the Senate's had. And in conference committee bargaining, the speaker went along to get along, following an old political adage.

"The governor wanted it, the Senate approved it," the speaker told me. "So at a certain point, you pick your battles."

"With all due respect," he added, "the press was asleep at the switch."

And basically he's right — until the measure actually passed.

Once the public uproar erupted, Pérez says, "we were happy to readdress the issue."

Last Wednesday, Pérez rode a Capitol elevator downstairs to tell Brown what he wanted to do: Pass a substitute bill stripped of the record-act gutting. He got a green light, the speaker says. A Brown source says the governor was noncommittal.

Regardless, Pérez immediately issued a press release announcing his plan. That angered Senate leader Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) because he was caught off guard. The way he saw it, Pérez was unilaterally breaking a budget deal.

Steinberg rushed to the governor's office to vent.

Then he called a news conference to declare that Pérez's substitute bill would be DOA in the Senate. But Steinberg also announced that he would co-sponsor a constitutional amendment to fully reinstate the records act and force local governments to pay for all its costs.

Brown issued a one-sentence statement agreeing that Californians "should continue to have prompt access to public records" and saying he supported "enshrining these protections in California's constitution."

Of course, until Brown started playing budget games with the act, it had worked just fine for 45 years as a mere statute. It didn't need constitutional enshrining. The constitutional amendment would be required, however, to relieve Sacramento of reimbursing local governments for executing the state mandate.

One problem with the Steinberg plan, seemingly supported by Brown: After the governor signed the pending budget bill, and until voters passed the constitutional amendment a year from now, local governments could opt out of abiding by the public records act.

On Thursday morning, the Assembly passed Pérez's substitute bill on a party-line vote, 54 to 25.

A little skinback here: In my last column, I lauded Republicans for siding with the angels and voting against the original bill that contained the gutting. Erase that. They also voted against the substitute bill, asserting it included too much other stuff that was objectionable.

Meanwhile, the public outcry was escalating. And Brown was going nuts.

He hadn't paid much attention to this issue, ever. For him, it was about saving money — although, clearly, preserving the public's right to know was not one of his top priorities.

Now suddenly he was being slammed by newspaper headlines and pounded by many.

"This is a mess," Brown told Pérez and Steinberg. "You guys need to fix this."

So they agreed to pass both Pérez's substitute bill and Steinberg's constitutional amendment. A short-term and a long-term fix, they called it. And Brown would scuttle the original bill.

"Sleeping on it overnight and talking to the governor," Steinberg told me, "I reconsidered. It was becoming a distraction. The job of a leader is to see the big picture."

The big picture here shows a furious public turning around startled politicians. Enjoy it.

george.skelton@latimes.com

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