Voters to decide fate of California’s landmark public records law

150 150 Matthew Grant Anson

(photo credit: Theen Moy)

Back in June when the governor’s budget bill was making its final rounds and it looked like the Public Records Act would be softened to save money, California Forward monitored the events with some serious trepidation.

We spoke out along with other transparency-minded groups concerned by the crumbling of what is a driving force behind Open Government, and we observed with great relief the Legislature backing off from turning the PRA into something local agencies could opt out of. Instead, they promised, the issue of the Public Records Act would be dealt with down the line.

Well, we have at last reached that point. The passage of SCA 3 this week not only unshackles the state from having to reimburse local governments for record requests, it also clarifies that local agencies are absolutely required to comply with the Public Records Act as well as the Ralph M. Brown Act. The passage of SCA 3 means California’s voters will be tasked with deciding next June whether to approve the measure as a constitutional amendment.

Senator Mark Leno, who co-sponsored the legislation with Senate President pro Tempore Darrell Steinberg, explained to California Forward the process and reasoning behind taking the PRA away from the ledge and instead making it stronger than ever, should the voters approve.

“The Governor’s proposal was designed to prevent the state’s taxpayers from covering the cost for this local government function [of providing records upon request],” Leno said. “However, some criticized the proposal for reducing access – which was not the intent, nor was it an argument I believe had merit. But to ensure continued public access, we withheld action on that proposal.”

However, Leno said the Legislature didn’t have the option to just do nothing and that a resolution needed to be found that wouldn’t put a cash-strapped state on the hook for records requests.

“We know that in order to maintain both transparency and state fiscal responsibility, a permanent solution was needed in order to end the state’s liability to pay local governments for something they should be held accountable to do on their own,” Leno said. “SCA 3 is the answer. It will ensure that local governments have a constitutional obligation to continue providing both access to public records and notice of open meetings without expectation of funding from the state’s General Fund.”

Considering this new development, we checked back in with open government advocate and general counsel of the California Newspaper Publisher’s Association Jim Ewert, who back in June stressed to California Forward his worry that local agencies, under the weakened PRA, wouldn’t need to provide reasoning for not responding to a request, “presumably allow[ing] an agency to not respond to a request at all.”

Ewert was in much better spirits with the passage of SCA 3. “We support it strongly,” Ewert said. “We’re delighted that the people in California are going to be able to make the determination here. We’re confident that people will support the idea that both the Public Records Act and Brown Act are fundamental to government and the democratic process.”

Government transparency is the only clue regular citizens have into what is actually happening with their local governments, and the constant threat of the neutering of California’s transparency acts was an assault on a tool for civic engagement and participation. The passage of SCA 3 is an important step by the Legislature to enshrine transparency and open government as a fundamental aspect of governance. In June, it will be up to California’s citizens to show whether or not they feel the same. 


Matthew Grant Anson

All stories by: Matthew Grant Anson