As Californians shelter-at-home up and down the state, the journalists and citizen watchdogs who file California Public Records Act (CPRA) requests know that trade-offs must be made. We know that local agencies may be understaffed at this time and that they may be slow to respond to our letters. They may need to restrict our ability to inspect records in person at City Hall, and public records lawsuits may stall as courts restrict hearing dates.
But where we draw the line is when government agencies announce they will suspend the public records request process altogether, a move telegraphed by several agencies in a recent Los Angeles Times story.
The right to access information is enshrined in the California Constitution, and this right is never more important than during an international crisis. That’s why EFF has joined the First Amendment Coalition and other public records advocacy groups in signing a statement supporting government transparency, even amid the most challenging circumstances.
“While we acknowledge the extraordinary stresses that government agencies face right now, we urge all government agencies to comply with the California Public Records Act and the California Constitution and take all reasonable measures to continue to provide information to the public and the press during these exceptionally difficult times,” the groups write.
The letter notes that COVID-19 is hardly California’s first major crisis. The legislature has never authorized the suspension of CPRA, nor do Gov. Gavin Newsom’s emergency orders waive agencies’ responsibilities under CPRA.
The California Supreme Court has found that "openness in government is essential to the functioning of a democracy.” While COVID-19 will certainly interrupt some of our normal expectations, it is essential that our democracy continue to function through these hard times. That means ensuring that the public can understand and hold officials accountable for the decisions they make in the halls of power while we’re all stuck at home.