Hey, kudos to Chris Cadelago of U-T San Diego for covering a major story way back in February that many of us only recently became alarmed about. The story is Gov. Jerry Brown's rotten plan to weaken the California Public Records Act (CPRA), ostensibly because doing so would save the state money.
Brown quietly included the plan in January as part of his annual budget proposal, because the state is theoretically on the hook for reimbursing local governments for the cost of complying with what's currently a state mandate. Legislators—primarily Democrats—endorsed it last week when they approved a so-called budget trailer bill containing various and sundry provisions. Open-government advocates are now attempting to convince Brown to veto the item in the budget that changes parts of the CPRA from required to optional.
On the chopping block are requirements that government agencies respond to requests for public records within 10 days, help members of the public craft records requests so that they achieve their goal and provide documents in electronic formats if they already exist in that form. Despite assertions to the contrary from Brown's representatives, each of these requirements is crucial.
As former Voice of San Diego reporter Rob Davis has been pointing out this week on Twitter (@robwdavis), electronic databases are invaluable to overworked reporters or citizens who wouldn't otherwise have time to recreate them by working off of printed documents and entering all that information into a spreadsheet, which, in electronic form, can be filtered and sorted to help gain a better understanding of the data. And agencies could then charge for the printouts, completely unnecessarily; the cost can be prohibitive for some.
The requirement that agencies help people shape their requests is key because folks don't often know what specific records exist that would tell them what they want to know.
But the worst part is removal of the 10-day-response mandate. The governor's people say that no one is taking away the core requirement that agencies comply with records requests, but what happens when they don't have to respond in a timely manner? They, literally, can take forever. They're not refusing to comply, yet the requestor would never get the information. If an agency doesn't want to release information because it might reflect poorly, it can simply wait out the clock eternally. The only recourse would be to sue, and only the wealthiest media companies can afford that.
The principle behind the CPRA is that information generated by government entities—the state, cities, counties, school districts, water districts, law-enforcement agencies—belongs to the public. We fund the work of these agencies through our tax dollars, and whatever they do is done in our name. We need to be able to monitor their actions to make sure they're behaving appropriately on our behalf. The right to know what's going on behind their closed doors and in their budget ledgers is as fundamental a democratic tenant as the right to vote.
And this isn't just a press thing—neighborhood activists, citizen watchdogs, public-interest attorneys all regularly use the CPRA. But even if you don't, chances are good that you've benefitted from investigative journalism that couldn't have happened without compliance with the CPRA. Are you footing the bill for lavish government travel? Is toxic gunk being emptied into public waterways? Are companies getting government contracts because they have friends in high places? Are public services being distributed fairly, geographically and socioeconomically? These are the things documents tell us. The burden should be on the government to explain why public records shouldn't be released immediately, and that should be the highest of hurdles to clear. Too often, government agencies ignore, deny, delay and parse as a matter of course because they find quick compliance inconvenient or potentially embarrassing.
Even without the proposed changes, the CPRA is far from ideal. As former CityBeat writer Dave Maass noted in a post for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a joint study by the Center for Public Integrity, Global Integrity and Public Radio International gave California a D-minus for public access to information.
Please urge Gov. Brown to reconsider this assault on our right to know what our government's up to. Call him at 916-445-2841. Write to him at govnews.ca.gov/gov39mail/mail.php. Tweet at him at @JerryBrownGov. Tell him to veto these changes to the CPRA.
What do you think? Write to firstname.lastname@example.org.