One of the low points of 2013 was quickly followed by one of this year’s high points when California policymakers did a quick reversal in Sacramento to protect the state’s vital “sunshine law.”
In response to public pressure in June, lawmakers and Gov. Jerry Brown swiftly and dramatically abandoned the half-baked legislation that would have eviscerated the state’s open-records act.
Instead, chastised in the glare of bad publicity, the leaders switched gears, did the right thing and actually protected the public’s right to know what local governments are doing.
The whole episode started when the Legislature passed a trailer bill – one of those laws that implement the state budget but sometimes contain sneaky surprises. In this instance, Assembly Bill 76 included a provision that would have made it optional for local governments to comply with significant parts of the California Public Records Act.
The CPRA is important to all Californians because it requires public agencies – for example, city councils, the county Board of Supervisors, law-enforcement agencies and school districts, to name just a few – to make government documents and data available to the public within 10 days of a request in most cases. The CPRA even requires the agencies to help the public identify the records they’re interested in seeing, and then provide the documents free or at nominal cost.
The public outcry against AB 76 forced legislative leaders and the governor to backtrack. They quickly agreed on a revised version of the trailer bill, SB 71, that did not provide any such loophole for local governments.
Part of their 180-degree turn, however, was an agreement to put a constitutional amendment on the state ballot in 2014 to discontinue state payments to local agencies to cover their expense of complying with requests made under the CPRA. According to the California Secretary of State’s Office, the measure, SCA 3, has qualified for the June state ballot.
The reversal by the Legislature and Gov. Brown was eminently appropriate. Continuation of the CPRA makes a big difference in California by discouraging questionable government policies and practices, thus promoting good government.
We don’t know how state voters will respond to the June measure, which intends to halt the state’s payments to local governments for doing what they should be doing regardless.
But as to the larger issue of protecting the public’s right to know, we are delighted that 2013 was a year when state leaders quickly saw the light and acted properly to protect California’s sunshine law.