Legislators shouldn’t duck obligation to open records

The Legislative Open Records Act always has been something of an oxymoron.

Legislators generally understand the potential implications of the laws they write. Because they are nobody’s fools, legislators know enough to exempt themselves from some of the requirements they impose on others.

One is the requirement that public agencies produce public records. Emails, memos, internal payroll and budget documents, desk calendars, details about supposedly private meetings and much more can become subject to Public Records Act requests, rightly so.

Public access to information is fundamental to a functioning democracy, even though it can be messy and embarrassing for government entities other than the Legislature.

Bay Area News Group and Los Angeles News Group reporters were doing their job last year when they requested the calendars, appointment books and meeting schedules of former Sens. Ron Calderon and Leland Yee.

Calderon, D-Montebello, was indicted on bribery and money laundering charges. Yee, D-San Francisco, was charged in an organized crime case. The documents sought by the reporters could provide insights into the politicians’ activities and nature of the charges against them.

Legislators refused to produce the documents, citing the ironically named Legislative Open Records Act. Additionally, legislators contend, a 2004 ballot measure that defines what is and isn’t public guarantees that such legislative records aren’t open. Not surprisingly, legislators wrote the measure, Proposition 59.

Sacramento Superior Court Judge Michael P. Kenny properly disagreed, issuing a tentative ruling last month that sided with the public’s right to know with whom legislators met and what appointments they had.

A tentative ruling is just that. We hope Kenny doesn’t water down his final decision by merely limiting it to the Calderon and Yee cases. If he sticks to his views, the Legislature’s lawyers likely will appeal, claiming that any such ruling would infringe on their role as a separate branch of government.

Peter Scheer, executive director of the nonprofit First Amendment Coalition, told The Sacramento Bee’s Alexei Koseff that the ruling could force legislators “to live with a degree of visibility and transparency that they don’t want … but, of course, that everybody else has to deal with.”

Koseff quoted legislators who fretted that opening lawmaker schedules to the public would have a “chilling effect” on the deliberative process and might inhibit legislators from soliciting views of some unpopular figures in controversial matters. That might be a risk. But as other government officials who must comply with Public Records Act requests have learned, the public’s right to know can be messy.