Transparency: The Legislature Giveth and the Legislature Taketh Away – Simultaneously!

By Craig Alexander
June 5, 2017

California’s state legislature is poised to pass two bills that will have profound effects on citizens’ rights to obtain documents from their governments under the California Public Records Act. One is a step forward for citizens (AB 1479) and one is a step backward (AB 1455).

AB 1479 passed the Assembly by a vote of 71 to 1.  Assuming it passes the Senate and Gov. Brown signs it into law, AB1479 would require a government entity to designate a person who will be responsible for responding to Public Records Act requests.  It would also add potential penalties against a government entity of between $1,000 and $5,000 (in addition to paying the Requestor’s legal fees and costs) for failing to properly respond to requests.  The bill is supported by the California Newspaper Publishers Association, the American Civil Liberties Union and other First Amendment advocates all having many examples of government entities either not responding to CPRA requests or responding either very slowly or inaccurately to them.

As California Policy Center’s General Counsel I can attest that many government entities do not respond properly to CRPA requests.  As an example recently CPC’s Vice President Marc Joffe obtained information from the University of California and discovered it had many retirees receiving over $300,000 in pensions. In addition the University is using a hire back system for select retirees that allowed them to collect their full pensions plus a new salary often almost doubling their retiree pay.  The University took almost 6 months to turn this data over to Mr. Joffe after numerous delays.

What is not well known is that the University made promises to CPC’s Mr. Joffe in December 2016 to produce requested records.  Then after almost two months delay it decided to not disclose these records at all.  Then I issued a letter to the University demanding access to the documents and we  reduced the scope of what was requested.  In Response the University stated it would disclose the records.  Then it took another month’s time before it decided to not produce anything at all to us.  Why did it finally disclose those records in May 2017?  It only actually did disclose the records after I issued them a letter advising the University that if it did not disclose this data CPC would file a lawsuit the following week.  The disclosed data is what Marc Joffe analyzed and wrote about (and he was also interviewed about this by KPIX in the SF Bay Area).  Hardly a good faith effort on the part of the University to a legitimate CPRA request.

Therefore in my personal opinion AB 1479 is a good bill that is needed to strengthen transparency and the right of citizens to hold their government accountable.

Unfortunately the legislature is not acting logically and consistently in support of the citizen’s right to obtain their government’s documents with AB 1455.  I have previously written about this very bad bill.  As I noted in that article:

If passed, this bill would add another exemption to the Public Records Act to bar citizens from obtaining records regarding these negotiations FOREVER! The net effect of this is to make all public employee union negotiations with public entities secret. Only the finished contract would be released to the public usually about three days before the public officials votes on it. You the taxpayer will never know how these contracts were put together.

AB 1455 has now passed the Assembly mostly on a party line vote.  It will now be taken up in the Senate.  This is a very bad bill that will restrict the rights of citizens to ever know how these sweet heart government employee union deals come together.  The very people who have to pay for these deals deserve the right and ability to see how their elected officials are spending their taxpayer dollars.  But AB 1455 will cut that right off by disallowing average taxpayers and the press to obtain this information via a Public Records Act request.  Why is the majority party in Sacramento so willing to pass both AB 1455 to restrict citizen’s rights under the CPRA while at the same time voting overwhelmingly to strengthen the CPRA in AB 1479?  Who is sponsoring AB 1455?  Government employee unions!  Need I say more?

I have already written my Assemblyman and State Senator urging them to vote No on AB 1455 and Yes on AB 1479.

Craig Alexander is an attorney who represents requestors of information under the California Public Records Act. He is also volunteer General Counsel for the California Policy Center, Inc. a policy think tank that advocates for transparency in government. He can be reached at craig@craigalexanderlaw.com.

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