Governor, Legislature Back Down on Weakening Public Records Act
Update 2:20 p.m.: And one more time …
From the Sacramento Bee …
Update to the update to the update on this story 12:10 p.m.:
A joint press release from Assembly Speaker John Pérez and Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg announces the Senate will, in fact, vote to undo the public records changes, which transformed the requirement that local governments comply with requests for public documents to an optional “best practices” guideline.
Steinberg had previously said the Senate wouldn’t act, despite the Assembly’s earlier revote on the budget bill stripped of the public records provision.
SACRAMENTO—Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) and Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez (D-Los Angeles) released a joint statement today regarding the Legislature’s actions on the California Public Records Act:
“We agree there needs to be both an immediate fix to ensure local entities comply with the California Public Records Act and a long-term solution so the California Public Records Act is not considered a reimbursable mandate. Accordingly, the Senate will take up the amended SB 71 passed by the Assembly today that removed changes in the budget regarding the California Public Records Act. As the Senate advances its proposed constitutional amendment, the Assembly will work with them throughout its process to give voters the chance to make clear that good government shouldn’t come with an extra price tag.”
California’s Assembly has taken a mulligan on open records requirements.
Less than a week after the chamber passed a bill removing mandates dictating how local governments respond to public records requests, the chamber voted 52-25 to pass a near-identical version of the initial measure, but stripped of the public records changes.
The language in question removes mandates on local governments to respond to open records requests within 10 days, provide electronic copies of documents when they’re available, and actively assist members of the public with their queries.
Supporters of the scaled-back mandates, including Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, say the shift isn’t about making public access more restrictive, but rather a question of who should foot the bill for public records compliance. California’s constitution requires the state to pay for any mandates it imposes on local governments. Removing the public records requirements and making them a “best practice” for cities and counties instead of a requirement would save the state tens of millions of dollars, according to the Legislative Analyst’s Office.
The Assembly’s move created moments of political jujitsu, as Democratic leaders simultaneously defended their initial vote while urging members to repeal it. Budget committee chair Bob Blumenfeld pointed out the change was initially proposed in Gov. Jerry Brown’s January budget proposal.
“Six months ago when the provision was before the committee, there was not a single article,” he said. “I got not a single call to my office, nor was anyone in the press concerned about it.”
In fact, the San Diego Union-Tribune wrote about the proposal in February, but the open records change did not gain much public notice until last week.
“There is [now] a hue and cry about it, and we want to be responsive to that,” Blumenfeld said.
Republicans blasted Democratic leaders’ decision to undo last week’s initial vote. “This is an embarrassment that we have to stand here today and redo the work that we just did,” said San Bernadino County Republican Tim Donnelly. “You guys got caught with your hand in the cookie jar. The press appropriately came down on you, and you’re trying to do a do-over,” said Orange County Republican Donald Wagner.
What happens next isn’t clear. Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg says the upper chamber won’t vote on the Assembly’s redo. Because of that, Republican Leader Connie Conway called the Assembly’s vote “political theater.”
Gov. Jerry Brown, who initially pushed for removing the local open records mandates, has yet to weigh in on the Assembly’s backtracking. His brief Wednesday night statement on the controversy voiced support for a constitutional amendment ensuring local governments pay for their own open records compliance, but made no mention of whether he’ll sign the initial bill making the changes, or whether he supports or opposes the move to backtrack.