Sometimes small changes can make a huge difference — and not in a good way.
Consider the changes to the California Public Records Act that were quietly tacked on to the state’s $96.3 billion budget that legislators recently passed.
The 11th-hour amendment would have made parts of the public records law optional for local government, gutting a seminal guarantee government transparency signed by Gov. Ronald Reagan in 1968 and expanded by Gov. Gray Davis in the early 2000s.
This is the law that made it possible for the Los Angeles Times to expose the pay scandal in the city of Bell. It’s the law that helps groups like the Ventura County Taxpayers Association gather the data they need to push for constructive pension reform. It’s the law that environmental groups use to keep the government honest about its commitments to protect our air, water and land.
The changes seemed small: Local governments would no longer have had to respond to requests within 10 days. They would no longer have needed to provide documents in electronic format. They would no longer have to help citizens locate existing government information. They would no longer have needed to provide any reason or rationale when rejecting a request. Local governments needed only take a voice vote once a year to opt out.
The stated rationale of the amendment was to save the state the tens of millions of dollars that it currently pays to local governments to reimburse their costs for timely and useable responses to public records requests. In a sign of just how little separates open government from something far less transparent and accountable, the public outcry over the amendment was so great that Assembly Speaker John Perez pulled it just as this issue of Pacific Coast Business Times was going to press.
With a budget approaching $100 billion, a few million dollars is a rounding error in statewide pension reform. Remember when state officials found $54 million in “hidden assets” in a state parks fund, even as the state was shuttering popular beaches?
Kudos to the California Newspaper Publishers Association, which led the protests against the amendment.
The costs to the public of these changes to the records act would not have been worth the money savings. Imagine requests being inexplicably rejected dozens of times, forcing citizens, advocacy groups and newspapers alike to root around like blind pigs for truffles of information about how our taxes and public resources are being used.
Speaker Perez can declare victory and move on. But the state has come perilously close toward taking a giant step in the wrong direction. That’s no way for a self-governing society in the nation’s biggest and greatest state to operate.