California Lawmaker Introduces ‘Sunshine Week’ Transparency Bills

SAN DIEGO (CN) – It was a tale of two San Diegos this week as a state assemblyman Thursday introduced two bills aimed at increasing government transparency following the public backlash which led a state senator earlier in the week to kill a bill he’d written with the city attorney which would have made it harder to recover attorney’s fees under the California Public Records Act.

Assemblyman Todd Gloria introduced Assembly Bills 1184 and 1555 Thursday, legislation which would mandate email record retention by public agencies and affirm the media’s right to access and listen to police scanners.

“Open government is a centerpiece of a sound democracy. Because public agencies conduct the people’s business, the people have a right-to-know and a right to access government information,” Gloria said in a statement.

“Access to public records and communications is fundamental to upholding public trust and, in some cases, preserving public safety. It’s my hope these bills will shine more light onto the work of public agencies and encourage a more open and transparent government for all.”

Gloria’s bills stand in stark contrast to a bill introduced by Sen. Ben Hueso – Senate Bill 615 – which would have required requesters of public records not satisfied with an agency’s response to “meet and confer” with the agency before being allowed to take it to court to try and compel production. The bill also would have created a higher legal standard to recover attorney’s fees when agencies are found to have improperly withheld records.

Hueso announced Tuesday he was pulling the bill after facing public backlash from journalists, government transparency advocates and even the San Diego City Council – of which he was formerly a member – voted Monday to oppose it.

AB 1184, inspired by investigative reporting by news outlet Voice of San Diego, would require all public agencies to retain and preserve emails for at least two years.

The nonprofit news outlet last year reported on local municipalities which deleted records under the two-year legal requirement, claiming California’s law on record retention is ambiguous. The news outlet later sued and won a settlement against the San Diego Unified School District over the district’s proposed email destruction policy.

Gloria’s bill clarifies current law to mandate public agencies must keep all their emails for at least two years.

AB 1555 seeks to affirm the right of news media to access police scanners by stating law enforcement agencies must provide access to encrypted police communications upon the request of any news service, newspaper, radio or television station.

The bill follows an incident last December when local media in Coachella Valley were cut off from listening to police scanners following a vote by a local authority that operates the police communications system. Media typically monitor police scanners for breaking news, emergencies, public safety hazards, natural disasters, traffic conditions and other important items of public interest.

Jim Ewert of the California News Publishers Association said AB 1555 will help local news media to keep their communities safe.

“Journalists’ access to scanner information about breaking news situations like road closures, active shooter situations, fires and natural disasters inform the public and helps folks avoid dangerous situations,” Ewert said in a statement.

“By keeping residents out of harm’s way, the bill would allow first responders to entirely focus their attention on addressing the situation at hand,” he added.

The bill is also supported by the California Broadcasters Association.

Both bills are pending referral to committees in the Assembly for review. If passed by the Legislature, the bills could land on Gov. Gavin Newsom’s desk by the fall.

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