May 14, 2014 | By Dave Maass

California Voters: Check Yes on Prop. 42

Whether you’re filling out a mail-in ballot or planning to rock the polling station in person on election day (June 3), if you’re a California voter we urge you to please vote "yes" on Prop. 42.

This statewide ballot measure would ensure that local agencies, such as cities and counties, obey the California transparency laws that guarantee the public’s right to access government documents and attend government meetings.

These laws—the California Public Records Act (CPRA) and the Ralph M. Brown Act—are crucial to EFF’s efforts to defend civil liberties, as well as to the work of every investigative journalist and citizen watchdog in the state.  CPRA, in particular, is what civil liberties groups use to expose overreaching law enforcement surveillance programs, from facial recognition to Oakland’s Domain Awareness Center. In Los Angeles, we’re suing the police and sheriff’s departments under CPRA after they refused to release records related to automatic license plate readers.

Under California law, the state usually has to reimburse local agencies for the cost of carrying out legislative mandates. In 2011, a state commission ruled that local agencies could bill the state for some expenses associated with complying with CPRA, such as the cost of assisting citizens with identifying the records they want and alerting requesters within 10 days whether their records can be released. Faced with the sudden cost of reimbursing thousands of local governments—estimated in the tens of millions each year—the legislature instead passed a bill that would have made obeying CPRA optional. Under that “fix,” a local agency could voluntarily obey CPRA “best practices,” but the state would not subsidize it. If a local agency did not want to pay its own costs, it could simply ignore certain CPRA provisions, such as providing records in an electronic format, as long as the governing body announced that decision at the beginning of the year.

Transparency groups and journalism organizations fought back—and won. Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed the bill under the condition that this proposition would go on the ballot, requiring local government to follow CPRA and pay for that compliance themselves.

This is a fair solution. Local government bodies should consider transparency part of the overhead of doing the public’s work.  If agencies have to pay the costs themselves, then that’s an incentive to create more efficient systems to support open government. Also, if an agency is going to invest resources into denying access to records, it will have to pay for it out of its own budgets rather than billing the state for the cost of secrecy.

If Prop. 42 does not pass, it is possible the legislature will revert to the previous proposal, in which transparency is just a suggestion rather than an imperative. Again, EFF urges Californians to check the “yes” box and show the state that government accountability is fundamental to a healthy democracy. 


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