A new legislative bill and a new threat by the attorney general are the latest attempts to undermine the state’s Public Records Act.
Every year, governors and state legislators load up bills that supposedly implement the state budget with all sorts of extracurricular provisions benefiting those to whom they owe favors.
They use these “trailer bills” because they can be, and often have been, passed very quickly after being drafted, thereby concealing their goodies from public scrutiny until they are safely enacted.
After many years of such shenanigans, some reformers finally placed a measure on the ballot to require 72-hour notice before bills can have their final votes. The Capitol’s politicians didn’t like it, and have managed to partially bypass it, but it’s still on the books.
It’s an example of how California politicians pay lip service to open government, but fundamentally prefer secrecy.
Two new examples of the hostility to airing the public’s business have arisen, both dealing with another state law, the Public Records Act (PRA), which, with a few specified exceptions, requires official documents to be public.
One is Senate Bill 615 by Sen. Ben Hueso, a Chula Vista Democrat, which would make it much more difficult to compel state and local agencies to comply with PRA requests.
It’s not uncommon for agencies to stonewall or drag their feet on requests for documents under the law, especially when they might be embarrassing to officialdom
The PRA doesn’t have an automatic enforcement mechanism, so one of the few ways journalists and others can force the issue is through the courts.
Hueso’s bill, however, would compel those requesting documents to go through a series of preliminary hoops, force them to prove in court that agencies stalled compliance “knowingly, willfully and without substantial justification,” and make it more difficult to collect legal costs from agencies that lose lawsuits.
Hueso’s office says the bill, introduced at the request of the San Diego city attorney’s office, is aimed at streamlining the PRA process, but those who employ the law say it’s an obvious attempt to undermine the law.
James Ewert, a lawyer for the California News Publishers Association, told Voice of San Diego, the local news site that blew the whistle on Hueso’s measure, “If Sen. Hueso is trying to make it more difficult for members of the public to get info about their government, this will be a smashing success.”
The second assault on the PRA is being waged by another Democrat, Attorney General Xavier Becerra.
Although a new law requires records of police misconduct to be made public, Becerra has stiffed requests for information about the investigators in his office and is threatening legal, or even criminal, action against one journalistic organization that managed to obtain some records.
UC Berkeley’s Investigative Reporting Program used the PRA to obtain nearly 12,000 names of law enforcement officers or applicants who had committed crimes ranging from shoplifting to murder.
Those convictions themselves are matters of public record, and the compilation came from the Commission on Police Officer Standards and Training (POST) via a PRA request.
Becerra then demanded that the records be returned or destroyed, saying they shouldn’t have been released, and warned that “unauthorized receipt or possession” of the data is a misdemeanor.
“If you do not intend to comply with our request, the department can take legal action,” the Department of Justice told the journalists.
So Becerra is telling us that we shouldn’t know that thousands of police officers have committed crimes and is threatening to prosecute those who defy him.
Sunshine, it’s been said, is the best disinfectant for official misconduct – but obviously Hueso and Becerra would like to keep us in the dark.