California, you did it.
As of this morning, with 22,353 of 22,353 precincts reporting, voters approved Proposition 42, a ballot measure that ensures that local agencies must comply with the California Public Records Act (CPRA). The final tally for the Public's Right to Know Act was 61.5 percent for, 38.5 percent against—a landslide for transparency.
Last year, the California legislature and the governor's office buried a few lines in the state budget that would have made compliance with key elements of CPRA optional for local governments, whether that's your local city council, school board or public utility agency. The argument was that the state was too cash-strapped to reimburse local bodies for the cost of basic transparency services, such as helping a member of the public identify what records they're looking for, and sending them a letter explaining why a record request has been denied.
This was unacceptable to open government advocates and journalism organizations, who immediately enlisted the public's help to fight back. A compromise was struck: the governor vetoed the bill and instead, voters would need to approve a ballot measure settling once and for all that local government need to cover the costs themselves. This is how it's done in other states, and so this idea wasn't particularly controversial.
As the California Newspaper Publishers Association explained:
Proposition 42 will clarify that local government agencies and not the state are responsible for the costs associated with their compliance with our access laws. It will ensure access to public records and meetings that are essential to expose and put an end to public corruption, like that experienced by the citizens of the City of Bell when public officials engaged in criminal acts and sacked the city’s coffers.
Proposition 42 will cement in the Constitution the public's civil right to know what the government is doing and how it is doing it. It will add independent force to the state's laws that require local governments to comply with open meeting and public record laws and future changes to those laws made by the legislature.
Proposition 42 will eliminate the possibility that local agencies can deny a request for public information or slam a meeting door shut based on cost.
Prop. 42 was endorsed by good-government groups such as the League of Women Voters, Californians Aware, as well as unlikely allies such as the California Republican and Democratic Parties, the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association and many of the state's largest labor unions. Although the California Green Party came out against it, the San Francisco Green Party, one of the largest chapters in the state, bucked the state party and wholeheartedly supported the reform. Virtually every major newspaper in the state editorialized in favor of it.
Last night's vote proves that Californians care about transparency. Now that additional protections have been enshrined in the California Constitution, EFF pledges to use the force of law to continue to shine light on ways the government is using technology to collect information on the public, from automatic license plate readers to drones to Stingrays.
Thank you, California.
Correction: This piece originally stated California Common Cause supported Prop. 42. The organization had a neutral position, although they were key in opposing the governor and legislature's attempt to gut the California Public Records Act. We have corrected the post accordingly.