A stronger California Public Records Act proposed

Submitted: May 25, 2017
Badlands Journal editorial board

More importantly, the bill would allow judges to fine public agencies $1,000 to $5,000 for blatantly violating the act, such as unreasonably withholding or delaying the release of records that clearly are public. Currently, there is no penalty. 

Like the California Brown Act, which governs public meetings, local governments like Merced County are constantly trying to encroach on the clear meaning of the public's right to know about the public's business, and so must be periodically strengthened. This can take the form of expensive losses in court like Merced County's absurd temper tantrum over violations of the Brown Act that resulted in two court decisions against it. Or, it can take the form proposed in AB 1479, adding  designated staff person to handle all PRA requests thoroughly and promtly or face a fine (if the public or newspaper is willing to take the government or agency to court).

However, the issue of fees remains. Who will pay court fees? Will the local governments and agencies be allowed to charge a fee for the services of a \designated PRA staff? Will the governments and agencies charge exorbitant copy fees to continue to discourage PRA requests? Will the state provide funds to reimburse the agencies and local governments for their PRA costs? -- blj



Ventura County Star

Editorial: A strong bill to keep public agencies public


One of the news media’s most important functions in a democracy is to constantly remind public agencies about that “public” part of their name. Too often, government officials try to conduct the public’s business in private, and the results can be disastrous for taxpayers (just ask those in the city of Bell).

The California Public Records Act is a key tool in keeping public agencies public. Enacted nearly 50 years ago, the law assures all residents and the media have prompt access to most records — so we know what government is up to and can be involved in important decisions. The act requires cities, counties, schools, water districts and others to make government documents and data available to the public within 10 days of a request in most cases.

Sometimes, however, public agencies are slow to respond. They may not have a designated person to handle such requests, or they may simply want to stall so the public cannot scrutinize their actions until it is too late.

On Friday, the Assembly Appropriations Committee will consider legislation aimed at fixing those two problems. Assembly Bill 1479 already has been unanimously endorsed by the Judiciary Committee, and we hope it gets a similar reception Friday.

The bill, authored by Asssemblyman Rob Bonta, D-Alameda, is a straightforward, sound approach to improving public agency compliance with the Public Records Act. It would require agencies to designate a person or office to serve as a custodian of records and respond to all requests made under the Public Records Act. More importantly, the bill would allow judges to fine public agencies $1,000 to $5,000 for blatantly violating the act, such as unreasonably withholding or delaying the release of records that clearly are public. Currently, there is no penalty.

The California News Publishers Association says “this legal hammer would promote increased compliance with the act, inform constituents when their local agencies wrongfully violate the act, and hopefully encourage a statewide culture of access instead of confidentiality.”

When The Star tested how average people were treated when they asked local governments for public documents, we found about 40 percent of the agencies either denied the requests outright or made demands that violated the law. More recently, the San Diego Union-Tribune analyzed 11,000 public records requests in 2015-16 and found agencies violated the law more than 25 percent of the time.

An Assembly analysis of AB 1479 notes that investigative reporters faced government delays and violations when requesting public records on the fatal Ghost Ship fire in Oakland, the alleged misconduct by former UC Davis Chancellor Linda Katehi and the Oroville dam fiasco.

The Publishers Association says such delays can make “newsworthy information stale, which results in less informed members of the community who have a much more difficult time holding their elected representatives accountable.” We agree and urge the prompt passage of AB 1479.


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