News Column

Lawmakers See the Light on Sunshine Law

June 21, 2013

Wyatt Buchanan

California's Public Records Act will remain intact, for now, after lawmakers abruptly reversed course Thursday amid criticism over a plan they approved last week to weaken the sunshine law in order to save the state money.

The action came a day after the leaders of the Senate and Assembly clashed over the question of what to do about a bill they passed, AB76. It would have lifted the state mandate that requires cities, counties and other local government groups to respond within 10 days to a request for public records and to provide specific forms of assistance to members of the public and news media who seek records.

Following intense pressure from the press and open-government advocates, Assembly Speaker John Perez, D-Los Angeles, announced Wednesday that the Assembly would pass a bill to reinstate the mandate, which the Assembly did on Thursday with a 52-25 vote.

But Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, on Wednesday threatened to block the bill from reaching the governor's desk, saying he preferred pursuing a state constitutional amendment to resolve the problem. On Thursday, however, he suddenly changed course and said the Senate will seek to approve the bill as early as Monday.

Steinberg said he will also pursue a constitutional amendment to require cities to adhere to the Public Records Act without requiring the state to reimburse cities for some of the expenses related to complying with the act.

Long-term solution

"There needs to be both an immediate fix to ensure local entities comply with the California Public Records Act and a long-term solution so the California Public Records Act is not considered a reimbursable mandate," Steinberg and Perez said in a joint statement Thursday.

The Public Records Act is an important tool often used by the press to get information as part of investigations of government activities, and any member of the public also can request information under act. Corruption and other criminal activities done by government officials in California have been exposed through the use of the act.

When the state requires local governments to take actions that have costs, those local entities can seek reimbursement from the state. Reimbursement for costs of the records act, such as the requirement for response within 10 days, is expected to begin this fall.

The Legislative Analyst's Office estimates that it could cost tens of millions of dollars a year. The other parts of the California Public Records Act, including a broader requirement that governments and agencies respond promptly to requests, were not affected by the original bill.

State Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, is crafting the constitutional amendment on the issue, and the legislative leaders said they would work closely with him.

"As the Senate advances its proposed constitutional amendment, the Assembly will work with them throughout its process to give voters the chance to make clear that good government shouldn't come with an extra price tag," Steinberg and Perez said in their statement.

Brown supports amendment

Gov. Jerry Brown said in a statement Wednesday that he supports such a constitutional amendment, but on Thursday he avoided reporters who wanted to question him after he gave a speech at the National Nurses United conference in San Francisco.

Upon leaving the stage, he ducked quickly behind a curtain. His spokesman, Evan Westrup, said the governor had "nothing to add" about the controversy and would be making no further public appearances Thursday.

Later, Westrup said in a statement that Brown would support the Democratic leaders' actions.

Open-government advocates applauded the reversal, but said the entire controversy could have been avoided had lawmakers reached out to the public for guidance before passing the original measure in the budget.

"I really don't think they expected this big of a backlash," said Phillip Ung, spokesman for California Common Cause. He said he didn't question that the motivation for passing the original change was anything more than a financial decision.

"I think that because that was their main motivation and main driver they had blinders on" over a possible public outcry, he said.

Wyatt Buchanan is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. E-mail: wbuchanan@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @thewyatt

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(c)2013 the San Francisco Chronicle

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