California budget bill includes changes to public records law

June 17th, 2013 | by Barrett Newkirk | Comments

A measure approved by California lawmakers as they worked to meet a deadline for the state budget allows local governments to opt out of certain parts of the state’s public records law.

The bill is what’s known as a “trailer bill,” meaning it’s a kind of catch-all piece of legislation considered as part of the state budget. This particular bill covered many topics, including public records. The state Senate and Assembly both approved the bill Friday, meaning it now goes to Gov. Jerry Brown.

Cities, school districts and other governments would need to announce they were taking advantage of the now optional requirements at a public meeting every year.

Peter Scheer, head of the open government advocacy group the First Amendment Coalition, said Friday the bill appeared to be a classic example of “stealth legislation.”

“It looks like one of those examples where the trailer bill is being used not to move a cost-saving measure, but being used very deceptively to change policy without any public hearing or participation or discussion,” Scheer said.

Scheer said the bill appeared to give governments a choice of following three parts of the California Public Records Act. For one, governments could choose not to help people craft their requests.

Second, governments could choose not to respond in writing within the law’s 10-day deadline, but Scheer said he wasn’t sure what that would mean in practice. “It doesn’t mean that they never have to answer your public records request,” he said. “It just means they don’t have to do it in 10 days. What happens in 20 days? In 30 days? That’s left a little uncertain in my mind.”

The third thing the bill changes is how governments provide electronic records, Scheer said. California law says agencies must be willing to provide records in the format in which they’re kept, but Scheer said the bill gives them a choice in how to provide electronic records.

He said that change has the potential to be the most damaging to open government efforts because agencies could decide to provide information they don’t want to disclose in formats that make the it difficult to analysis. That could mean agencies are spending resources to convert documents to new formats, which goes against the money-saving purpose of trailer bills, he said.

On its website, the First Amendment Coalition is encouraging people to contact Brown and ask him to veto the bill’s public records provisions.

The L.A. Times quoted a spokesman for Brown defending the changes. “This action does not send a message to local governments to ignore public records [requests],” said H.D. Palmer, a spokesman for the governor’s Department of Finance. Palmer also pointed to a 2004 constitutional amendment meant to ensure access to government documents, the paper said.

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