It should be a given: Local governments have to tell the public what's on the agenda for meetings and provide public records.
Yet like so many things in California, it can get convoluted. While the core of the state's open government laws is beyond dispute, there's a fight over, what else, money -- specifically, reimbursements from the state to local governments for the costs of some procedural mandates to make the laws work better.
The public's right to know is getting caught in the crossfire.
While officials pledge to comply even without a state mandate, there's no getting around the risk that some might not -- and that scofflaws are more likely to be the ones with something to hide.
This issue is a reminder that freedom of information must be continually safeguarded. That's the goal of "Sunshine Week," an annual effort led by journalism and civic groups.
The 2013 Sunshine Week is under way, so we'll use the occasion to spotlight some of the efforts to block the sunshine -- to keep citizens from finding out what is being done with their money and by the representatives they elect.
Who pays for openness?
Agencies that truly believe in the public's right to know should be using the Internet to the fullest, especially to do things such as posting the agendas of their upcoming meetings.
Under the Brown Act -- sponsored by the late Assemblyman Ralph M. Brown of Modesto -- government agencies are required to post their agendas 72 hours in advance of the meeting time.
Under Proposition 1A, sponsored by local governments and overwhelmingly approved by voters in 2004, the state must reimburse cities, counties and special districts for the costs of mandates it hands down -- or suspend the mandates. Local governments had been billing the state more than $20 million a year to cover their costs of preparing and posting meeting agendas and disclosing certain information about closed sessions.
Open-government advocates say the reimbursement claims were too often padded. In any case, the money became a ripe budget-trimming target for Gov. Jerry Brown and the Legislature.
Last year, to avoid paying reimbursements, they suspended the public notice mandates. Local governments said they would voluntarily comply. Open-government advocates say they did with rare exception, most notably in San Diego County, where supervisors replaced the chief administrative officer within four hours of his resignation without public notice.
Then language was put into Proposition 30, Brown's tax measure that passed in November, to permanently take the state off the hook for Brown Act reimbursements. Lawmakers need to restore the open meeting mandates.
And local officials need to be realistic in what they claim it costs to perform this most basic task.
California does not make the grade
Our state lawmakers' efforts to make public information accessible on the Web got a "D" grade in a report card released by the nonprofit Sunlight Foundation. As noted in Capitol Alert, the scores in the "Open Legislative Data Report Card" were based on assessments in six categories, including the completeness and timeliness of information available online and whether the formatting allows computer programs to "scrape" the data and put it in an easy-to-analyze form.
Our state was one of six states to receive a "D." Six flunked, and eight states earned an "A."
James Turk, a Sunlight Labs developer, said the foundation put together the report after its team "struggled with the often inadequate information made available" on state legislative websites.
Acknowledging local efforts
In Merced County, government agencies generally do a good job of getting out the word about public meetings and posting agendas on websites, even making printed copies available in a timely way.
Law enforcement agencies also make a solid effort to get out information about crime and other incidents in the various communities, especially if they deem such information important for public safety. The district attorney's office goes the extra mile to honor requests for public records about court cases.
When it comes to public records requests, government agencies generally respond within the allotted time -- often, but not always, providing the desired documents or records.
In general, officials in Merced County understand the rules regarding open meetings and public records, but that doesn't always prevent them from trying to withhold information and that requires continued vigilance.
An invitation for public comments
We invite readers to share their thoughts -- good and bad -- on how well local agencies do in 1. making information accessible and 2. responding to requests for public records. Please share via a letter to the editor -- using the guidelines on this page.