Total Victory for Transparency in California Is Within Reach
UPDATE: Gov. Jerry Brown signed SB 71 into law and vetoed AB 76 on June 27, preserving the California Public Records Act. Now, that's total victory.
As the dust settles in the California state house, it’s time for an update on the battle to preserve the public’s right to access local government records.
The short of it: we are very, very close to being able to declare total victory for transparency.
A little more than a week ago, the California legislature passed a trailer bill—a piece of legislation that accompanies the state budget—that would have taken many of the most important provisions of the California Public Records Act and made them optional for local governments. Had Gov. Jerry Brown signed this bill, AB 76, local agencies (such as cities, counties, education boards, sheriff’s departments and water districts) would no longer have to assist members of the public with identifying the records they seek, respond to requests within 10 days, give legal reasons for rejecting requests, or provide provide electronic versions of documents that already exist in digital format. These important requirements would have become “best practices” instead of mandates.
The bill passed late on a Friday and immediately open-government groups, citizen watchdogs and media outlets took action—including hundreds of EFF supporters. Within days, the governor and leaders in the Senate were forced to back down.
With a 27-11 vote, the state senate on Monday sent a new version of the trailer bill—without the public-records language—to the governor’s desk. Brown has pledged his support for the new bill, SB 71, as long as the legislature also passes a constitutional amendment that would shift the cost of complying with CPRA from the state to the local agencies. That is set for a vote later this week and would be placed on the ballot in 2014.
As an organization, EFF cannot advocate for SB 71, since that would include supporting a long list of budgetary measures outside of our area of expertise and interest. We do, however, continue to oppose AB 76 and ask that Brown honor his commitment not to sign it. We must remain vigilant: this bad bill is still on the governor’s desk, ready to be signed if he changes his mind. Brown should formally veto it.
As we stand on the edge of a successful defense of transparency, it’s also important to recognize some of the heroes responsible: Sen. Leland Yee, for breaking ranks and opposing AB 76 when it came up for a vote; Chris Cadelago of U-T San Diego for doing the early legwork on the governor’s budget proposal; the open-government activists at Californians Aware and the First Amendment Coalition for dissecting everything wrong with the legislation; the California Newspaper Publishers Association, Bay Area News Group and the Center for Investigative Reporting, for rallying the media troops and generating editorials; the Firearms Policy Coalition for sending thousands of letters; and of course EFF’s own engaged members, who know a heinous measure when they see it.
This will be the second successful defense of transparency this budget cycle; earlier this month legislature also rejected a proposal from the governor's office to charge the public to inspect court case records.