Hector Amezcua / hamezcua@sacbee.com

Gov. Jerry Brown talks to members of the press after he attended the fourth annual Crime Victims' Rights Rally on Tuesday, April 23, 2013.

Lawmakers, Jerry Brown flip on Public Records Act changes

Published: Friday, Jun. 21, 2013 - 12:00 am
Last Modified: Friday, Jun. 21, 2013 - 7:37 am

Beset by widespread criticism of a proposal to weaken California's public records law, Gov. Jerry Brown and lawmakers capitulated Thursday, abandoning a bill the governor appeared ready to sign as recently as a day earlier.

The reversal resolved a controversy that swept over the Capitol in recent days, with the media and other open-government advocates decrying language in a budget bill that would have made compliance with some provisions of the California Public Records Act voluntary for local agencies.

The measure was proposed by Brown to limit the state's obligation to reimburse cities and counties for the cost of complying with portions of the records act, and the Legislature approved the measure as part of a budget deal with Brown last week.

Amid mounting public pressure, the Assembly voted Thursday to undo the legislation. Senate Democrats signaled they would follow course next week, and Brown is expected to sign the bill.

In an email, Brown spokesman Evan Westrup said the governor will support both revised budget language restoring the provisions of the records act and a constitutional amendment that would have the same effect but without requiring the state to reimburse local agencies for the cost of compliance.

"We support the legislative leaders' approach, which will eliminate uncertainty about local compliance with the law and, on a permanent basis, ensure that local government pays for what has long been its explicit responsibility," Westrup said.

The nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office had estimated that the cost to the state of reimbursing local agencies could reach "tens of millions of dollars" annually.

Brown and Senate Democrats appeared initially to balk when Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez announced Wednesday that the lower house would vote to uphold provisions of the records act. Brown and Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg said at the time that they would support a constitutional amendment.

But Steinberg, who previously said the Senate would not immediately act on the Assembly legislation, joined Pérez in issuing a statement Thursday saying the Senate will take up the measure after all.

"We agree there needs to be both an immediate fix to ensure local entities comply with the California Public Records Act and a long-term solution so the California Public Records Act is not considered a reimbursable mandate," the statement said.

The joint statement also said that the Assembly will work with the Senate on its proposed constitutional amendment.

Open government advocates cheered the development Thursday, saying both the budget bill and constitutional amendment are needed to address immediate and long-term concerns about open records.

"The one puts the fire out, and the other clears the brush around the house to prevent it from happening again," said Terry Francke, general counsel at Californians Aware.

Francke said the uproar over the records law changes were warranted, despite lawmakers initially saying local governments would continue to comply with the law.

"The problem with the Public Records Act has never been the behavior of the majority," Francke said. "It's those who exploit any strategy to keep certain information from the public. A suspended mandate would magnify problems by those who elude disclosure now."

Jim Ewert, legal counsel for the California Newspaper Publishers Association, said the governor and both houses of the Legislature should be commended for their change of heart. Ewert said the changes to the records law posed a threat to journalists as well as citizens interested in how agencies make decisions.

"This is a great day for the Legislature to establish its commitment to transparent government," Ewert said.

The bill now being considered in the Legislature is a replica of the previous budget bill – minus the public records changes. The Assembly voted 52-25 for the measure, along party lines.

Assembly Republicans said that despite their support of the records act, they would not support the budget trailer bill because it is loaded with other provisions they oppose, and they used a floor debate to highlight their attempts to require that legislation be in print for 72 hours before coming up for a vote.

Assemblyman Bob Blumenfield, D-Los Angeles, said the 72-hour provision was unrelated to the Public Records Act changes, which were included in the governor's January budget proposal.

Blumenfield said the Assembly initially opposed the records act changes last month, despite no clear opposition to the provisions Brown sought.

"We have a lot of folks waking up on this issue," Blumenfield said. "This is basically a reversion back to the Assembly's position."

The Legislature enacted the California Public Records Act in 1968. In 1979, Californians approved Proposition 4, which said that when the state requires local governments to provide a new program or a higher level of service, the state must cover the cost.

Two years ago, the Commission on State Mandates determined three provisions of the records law that were added after Proposition 4 passed were reimbursable costs the state should cover.

Those requirements of the records law – assistance in seeking documents, notification requirements and whether to release documents electronically – are what Brown proposed to suspend.

A constitutional amendment by Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, would exempt those three provisions from the Proposition 4 requirements, thus saving the state the cost of reimbursing local agencies for complying with the public records law.

"This requirement would be in the constitution along with the core provisions of the California Public Records Act," Leno said. "It would not be the responsibility of the taxpayers of California to make sure local elected officials respect and enforce the California Public Records Act."

The public records flap was one of the few complications in a relatively seamless budget process for Brown. He and Democratic lawmakers reached agreement on a $96.3 billion spending plan well ahead of the June 15 constitutional deadline, a package of bills he will sign before the budget year begins July 1.

Call Melody Gutierrez, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 326-5521. Follow her on Twitter @melodygutierrez.

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