June 20, 2013

Legislature plots new course following Public Records Act controversy

Gov. Jerry Brown and Senate leaders appeared Wednesday to reject an Assembly proposal to uphold key provisions of the California Public Records Act, instead saying the issue should go before voters as a constitutional amendment next year.

Gov. Jerry Brown and Senate leaders appeared Wednesday to reject an Assembly proposal to uphold key provisions of the California Public Records Act, instead saying the issue should go before voters as a constitutional amendment next year.

The tussle over how to ensure public access to local government records, as well as who should pay for those requirements, came after a barrage of criticism from open-government activists who said proposed changes in a state budget bill would essentially gut the law.

Brown proposed the changes in his January budget plan as a way to save the state money. They make it optional for local governments to comply with several key provisions of the act.

"We all agree that Californians have a right to know and should continue to have prompt access to public records and I support enshrining these protections in California's constitution," the Democratic governor said in a one-line statement. His office declined further comment.

At issue is Assembly Bill 76, a budget bill on Brown's desk that proposes making key provisions of the state's Public Records Act optional for local governments.

Amid criticism from the media and open-government advocates, the Assembly announced plans to send a replacement for the measure Thursday that does not contain the records act changes. Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez noted in a statement that his house did not include the changes in its initial version of the budget.

"To be clear, this means that the California Public Records Act will remain intact without any changes as part of the budget – consistent with the Assembly's original action," he said.

An hour after Pérez's announcement, Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg said the Senate would not move the replacement bill until "we get word from one public entity that they are not complying" with best practices under the open records act.

Instead, he said Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, will introduce a constitutional amendment today that would require local governments to abide by all provisions of the act, but ensure that the state doesn't have to foot the bill. The Senate may vote next week on the constitutional amendment, which would put the matter before voters in 2014.

Pérez's office did not return calls seeking comments about the Senate's plans.

"The amendment will clarify that this controversy was never about weakening the Public Records Act," Steinberg said. "It instead is about whether state taxpayers pay the bill for what cities and counties should be doing on their own."

Newspaper editorials across the state call have called on Brown to veto the measure now on his desk.

"We're delighted by the Assembly's proposal, but we're a little disappointed that the Senate will not put it to a vote," said Jim Ewert, general counsel at the California Newspaper Publishers Association. "We applaud Senator Leno for proposing a constitutional amendment, which we think is the ultimate solution. We will do everything we can to support that process."

While open records advocates urge Brown to veto the records act changes, crime victim advocates are raising objections to language in the same bill that would relax requirements for how local agencies handle domestic violence cases.

The language, included in a package of budget bills Brown is expected to sign this month, would make optional an existing law requiring local agencies to implement written policies encouraging the arrest of domestic violence offenders if there is probable cause a crime has been committed.

The bill would also make optional – but encourage as a "best practice" – a requirement that agencies maintain a record of protection orders related to domestic violence cases to help law enforcement officers responding to domestic violence calls.

The Brown administration said the domestic violence requirements have been temporarily suspended for more than 20 years and that the legislation would not alter how cases are handled in California.

"What is proposed in the budget regarding this essentially updates state statutes to reflect what has been standard operating procedures," said H.D. Palmer, a spokesman for Brown's Department of Finance, "Local governments have been performing these activities as a matter of course and a matter of good government without state involvement."

Christine Ward, director of the Crime Victims Action Alliance, said the change in state code would represent a "terrifying" step back for victims of domestic violence. The district attorneys of Los Angeles and Sacramento counties have both urged Brown to veto the legislation.

In a letter Wednesday, Los Angeles County District Attorney Jackie Lacey said eliminating such mandates could "roll back years of hard fought victories made by victim's rights and domestic violence prevention advocates."

Call Melody Gutierrez, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 326-5521. Follow her on Twitter @melodygutierrez. The Bee's Annalise Mantz contributed to this report.

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