Are Unions Behind California Assembly Bill 76 to Hinder Public Records Access?

Are Unions Behind California Assembly Bill 76 to Hinder Public Records Access?

What special interest group would have such disregard for the tenor of the times that it would now push for a law to hinder the public’s ability to obtain records from local governments?

And what special interest group would have the chutzpah to get that law enacted through a supplemental trailer to an annual budget, thus avoiding public hearings or an opportunity for the public to comment on it?

Until June 12, 2013, California Assembly Bill 76 had been an empty shell for a “budget trailer bill” to be passed as a supplement to the 2013-2014 California state budget. Then it was filled with technical changes and union-backed statutory provisions and whipped through the legislature and to Governor Jerry Brown on June 14. It now waits for the governor’s signature.

At one time, the legislature could claim that it while it was “mindful of the right of individuals to privacy,” it found and declared that “access to information concerning the conduct of the people’s business is a fundamental and necessary right of every person in this state.” But now there are suspicions that it is more concerned with protecting a special interest group or an individual or individuals  from damaging revelations.

Among the provisions of AB 76 is language that gives local agencies “discretion” to comply with certain provisions of the state’s longstanding Public Records Act. Certain requirements would transform into optional “best practices.” Local governments would no longer need to explain why they couldn’t provide requested records within 10 days; for that matter, local governments would no longer need to explain why they couldn’t provide records at all. Local agencies would no longer need to provide records (such as financial data) in a useful and appropriate electronic format or cooperate with the public to ensure satisfactory fulfillment of records requests.

Special language in Section 4 of the bill seems to indicate that the public records access provision would take effect in law immediately, rather than on July 1, 2013 as explicitly stated (in Section 119 of the bill) for many other sections. Starting in 2014, but not before then, a local government would have to announce orally at a scheduled public meeting that it would not be complying with the relevant public records laws for the next year. It’s hard to believe, but it seems the law was written to allow a local government to avoid compliance with public records access laws for the remainder of 2013 without making a public announcement of the policy.

AB 76 justifies this change with a cynical provision (Section 118 of the bill) claiming the legislature has a “strong interest…in allowing, to the extent possible, local agencies to control the manner in which they perform their public duties, including, but not limited to, the manner in which they comply with the spirit and purpose of the California Public Records Act.” This statement is laughable.

As readers of know from articles such as With Senate Bill 7, California Unions Advance Plot to Neuter City Charters, the California state legislature recently enacted two union-backed bills (Senate Bill 922 and Senate Bill 829) that nullify local Fair and Open Competition policies that prohibit Project Labor Agreements in counties and general law cities and cut off state funding for charter cities that enact Fair and Open Competition policies. The union-backed Senate Bill 7 is now moving through the legislature to cut off state funding for charter cities that establish their own policies concerning government-mandated construction wage rates (so-called “prevailing wage”).

Local control is not the consistent principle in the affairs of the California state legislature – union control is the consistent principle. Knowing this, and recognizing that almost no one in Governor Brown’s office or in the state legislature is publicly defending this attack on government records access with a thoughtful argument, there’s justification to speculate that this provision in Assembly Bill 76 has something to do with a union concern.

Really, does anyone believe Governor Jerry Brown one day decided that the public had excessive access to information about their local governments? Of course not. It’s more likely that a special interest group or a person or persons with significant political clout asked for this. Here are some reasons to suspect unions.

1. Union fingerprints are all over Assembly Bill 76. Many of the substantive policy changes in the bill are related to union objectives. These proposals have not been considered in public hearings and are too obscure and complicated to recognize unless you are already familiar with the related labor issues. Here are examples:

  • There’s a set of amendments to the California Labor Code that allows the California Department of Industrial Relations to charge unlimited fees to school districts for labor compliance and enforcement on construction funded by bond measures that receive state matching grants from the State Allocation Board, while limiting the amount that a school district can reimburse the state using proceeds from those state matching grants. In other words, the operations of the California Department of Industrial Relations will be subsidized by money borrowed by school districts through bond sales authorized by local voters.
  • Money is shifted and loaned among various funds overseen by the California Department of Industrial Relations.
  • The Displaced Janitor Opportunity Act of 2002 is expanded to include contractors that provide food and beverage services at a publicly owned entertainment venue. In other words, the new Sacramento Kings owners, with their planned new arena, will not be able to save money by ending the old union arrangements.
  • New opportunities will be created for unions to impose apprenticeship requirements on industrial construction and maintenance contractors through training and process standards developed through the Occupational Safety and Health Standards Board and the Division of Occupational Health and Safety (OSHA).
  • The threshold for state agencies to avoid competitive bidding for contracts under certain conditions is increased from $75,000 to $150,000.

2. Newly-elected Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, who was head of the San Diego-Imperial Counties Labor Council before taking office on May 28, 2013, is one of the few legislators publically defending the proposal. Here’s an excerpt from an article Advocates Press Brown on Records Law in the June 17, 2013 UT San Diego newspaper:

Other Democrats including Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, D-San Diego, said they appreciated the concerns of the public and the press but couldn’t bring themselves to oppose a bill that included funding for a host of other general government programs, including victims of crime for property losses, a commission on the status of women and to strengthen job safety and wage enforcement for workers.

“This wasn’t a bill situation where I could say ‘Yeah, it’s very easy to vote against this. I don’t agree with this portion,’” Gonzalez said. “What I would like to see is the onus on local governments, where they will continue to provide the information. If not, give me the concrete stories about that not happening because of the change and I’ll be happy to work with that.”

The absence of a credible policy rationale for hindering public records access (other than challenging the credibility of opponents’ arguments) is stunning.

3. Anyone looking for a conspiracy theory might want to research where there are currently active efforts to obtain public records from a local government that are potentially damaging to politicians and special interest groups. One case of note is a lawsuit filed by the Coalition for Fair Employment in Construction in San Diego County Superior Court on April 22, 2013 to get public records from the City of San Diego regarding the development and implementation of a Project Labor Agreement on the San Diego Convention Center Phase III Expansion. (See Coalition for Fair Employment in Construction v. City of San Diego, Case No. 37-2013-00045254-CU-WM-CTL.)

As readers know, this saga has been reported in the articles Unions Threaten Environmental Litigation to Block San Diego Convention Center and Persistent Pressure Compels San Diego to Spit Out Project Labor Agreement. The Coalition for Fair Employment in Construction has persevered for eight months to get records, and some have been obtained, including a set unexpected provided by the city on June 3, 2013 that contains jaw-dropping information in emails. This was described as “the tip of the iceberg” by an informed source. The Coalition for Fair Employment in Construction has not released that set of information to the public yet, for reasons that will one day become obvious, but it continues to seek and pry out additional government documents. See for more information.

In the meantime, groups such as the California Newspaper Publishers Association, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Electronic Freedom Foundation, the California First Amendment Coalition, Californians Aware, and California Common Cause are asking Governor Brown to veto this language. Readers of have good reason to support the efforts of this coalition to preserve open and transparent government.

Kevin Dayton is the President & CEO of Labor Issues Solutions, LLC, and is the author of frequent postings about generally unreported California state and local policy issues at Follow him on Twitter at @DaytonPubPolicy.

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