SACRAMENTO (AP) – Cities and counties could dramatically restrict the information they release to the public without explanation under a bill approved by the state Legislature and sent to Gov. Jerry Brown as part of the state budget package.
The change makes it optional for local governments to comply with deadlines and other rules when they receive requests for public records. Current law requires them to respond within 10 days and cite reasons for needing more time or rejecting a request.
Open government advocates said if Brown signs the legislation into law, it would remove significant tools for the public to ensure that local governments are operating transparently.
“What I think it means is for the indefinite future, any local agency that for whatever reason chooses to ignore a Public Records Act request will not suffer any particular legal pressure to comply,” said Terry Francke, general counsel of Californians Aware, a group that advocates for government transparency.
Brown sought to suspend that mandate in his budget proposal to save millions of dollars in reimbursements the state owes to cities and counties for following the law. H.D. Palmer, a spokesman for the state Department of Finance, estimated Monday the cost in the “10s of millions” annually.
The change, which was not discussed during Friday’s floor votes, describes certain public records rules as optional “best practices.” The independent Legislative Analyst’s Office recommended the change instead of Brown’s proposal to suspend the mandate to follow the California Public Records Act.
Local governments must announce annually if they will not follow the optional requirements, according to the legislation. They also can choose whether to provide an electronic copy of a record, making records searches more cumbersome if local governments opt to provide paper copies.
Californians still have a constitutional right to access government documents, Palmer said.
City officials said Monday that local agencies will continue to fulfill public records requests, despite being owed millions from the state for complying with the law.
“As a practical matter, they will not act any differently,” said Chris McKenzie, executive director for the League of California Cities. “They believe in these practices.”
He said the state’s existing laws for complying with records requests were based on those previously enacted by some local agencies.
Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.