June 19, 2013

Dan Walters: California's budget bill would gut sunshine law

What goes around, comes around.

What goes around, comes around.

A state budget "trailer bill" now awaiting Gov. Jerry Brown's signature would eviscerate the California Public Records Act, a long-standing "sunshine law" that allows the press and public to access most state and local government documents.

Journalists use the CPRA to uncover official malfeasance. The Los Angeles Times employed it, for example, to ferret out the outrageous self-dealing in the small city of Bell, resulting in criminal trials.

Capitol journalists, including those at The Bee, use it to seek documents from state agencies that self-protective officials may not want the public to see, such as The Bee's disclosures about funds being hidden in the Department of Parks and Recreation.

The trailer bill, Assembly Bill 76, is a catch-all of legal changes supposedly related to the budget.

One provision, in the words of a legislative analysis, "recasts the CPRA mandate provisions as optional best practices, and requires a local government to either comply with these best practices or announce at its first regularly scheduled public meeting (and annually thereafter) that the local government will not meet the best practices."

Thus, whether a local government complied with a request for records would be optional. If it didn't, anyone seeking documents would be compelled to sue under an open records section of the state constitution approved by voters in 2004. The expense and delay associated with a court battle would obviously have a chilling effect, especially on those who lack the wherewithal to hire lawyers.

The Pacific Media Workers Guild, a journalists' union, the First Amendment Coalition and the California Newspaper Publishers Association, among others, have called on Brown to veto the bill.

However, it's doubtful that Brown will respond to those calls. It was his own Department of Finance that proposed the change to reduce the number of "mandates" for which the state must compensate local governments.

It's rather ridiculous that the state should have to pay local governments to obey such an obviously beneficial law, but another provision of the constitution requires compensation for such mandates.

That requirement was a part of Proposition 4, a 1979 spending limit measure sponsored by Proposition 13 co-author Paul Gann. The governor of the era, Jerry Brown, enthusiastically backed the measure and even called a special election to get it passed so that he could run for president in 1980 as an advocate of a balanced federal budget.

In other words, Brown's political ambition directly caused the problem that he now wants to solve by crippling the California public's right to see public documents affecting their well-being.

What goes around, comes around.

Call The Bee's Dan Walters, (916) 321-1195. Back columns, Follow him on Twitter @WaltersBee.

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