California Forum

Special interests seek to limit right to know

Legislators give lip service to the public’s right to know about government operations. But too often, for the right special interest, they will limit access to information. Right now, two bills addressing this tendency are pending, one involving an entrenched special interest, the other a shiny new one. One should pass. The other, not so much.

First, the old. Unlike Texas, Florida and a dozen other states, California exempts records of police misconduct from disclosure under the California Public Records Act. In Senate Bill 1286, Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, seeks to open records of completed investigations into officers who have been found to have committed wrongdoing, so the public can see what discipline, if any, was imposed.

He rightly contends that one way to deter abuse and restore confidence in law enforcement would be to shine light on officers who unjustifiably resort to force.

Supporters include civil libertarians, the California Newspaper Publishers Association and criminal defense attorneys. Opponents include virtually every law enforcement group, including district attorneys, the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, the California Association of Highway Patrolmen, the Sacramento County Deputy Sheriffs’ Association, a union representing college cops and many more.

Police unions give campaign money, unlike SB 1286’s backers, and candidates covet law enforcement endorsements. In other words, Leno’s bill faces long odds. It shouldn’t. Disclosure is fundamental to democracy.

Politicians also like to be seen as being on the cutting edge, as evidenced by Healdsburg Democratic Sen. Mike McGuire’s SB 1102. This bill would restrict access to information about Airbnb and other Internet-based competitors to traditional hotels.

Sen. Mike McGuire is carrying a bill to prohibit disclosure of information that could be used for “improper purposes.” What those purposes might be is anyone’s guess.

As envisioned by the bill, Internet hoteliers would pay hotel taxes to cities and counties without disclosing any information about the owners of the homes being rented. Cities could request that the state controller audit tax payments, but otherwise would be bound by concerns that data “is not used for improper purposes.”

What “improper purposes” includes is anyone’s guess. Internet companies might define as improper any information about their operations. Perhaps it’d be improper to let neighbors know that an owner was violating local zoning ordinances by turning a home into a business, or causing undue traffic and noise, or that a corporation was buying up property for use as short-term rentals.

What is clear is that SB 1102 is not in the public interest. Whatever his reason for this exemption, McGuire is, in our view, using the legislative process for improper purposes.