Planned Hurdle to Public Records Nixed in California

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) – Score one for government transparency.

A California lawmaker on Tuesday killed a bill that would have added hurdles for journalists and residents seeking records from agencies like police departments and school districts under the state’s Public Records Act, less than three weeks after the controversial bill was released.

Open-government groups and other critics painted Senate Bill 615 as a “problem in search of a problem” and a blatant effort to make things harder for public records requesters.

State Sen. Ben Hueso, D-San Diego, introduced the measure on Feb. 22, just ahead of a legislative deadline. He claimed the measure – sponsored by the San Diego City Attorney’s Office – would streamline things for requesters and government agencies.

The bill would have required requesters that were denied records to first “meet and confer in good faith” with the agency before suing for access to the public information. It also added more criteria for judges to follow when considering whether to award plaintiffs attorney’s fees in cases where an agency was found to be wrongly withholding records.

Groups like the California News Publishers Association and the First Amendment Coalition said Hueso’s proposal would gut the revered Public Records Act and make it virtually impossible for requesters to recover legal fees.

The 1968 law covers all local and state agencies except legislative and judicial bodies, and opens up things like sound recordings, emails and office memos for public examination. Anyone can submit a written request and agencies are supposed to respond within 10 days. The law provides several ways for agencies to exempt records, but they are supposed to provide a reason for denying a request.

Hueso’s ill-fated bill was blasted over the last two weeks by newspaper columnists, and the San Diego City Council voted to oppose it on Monday.

In the end, Hueso decided to withdraw the bill before it was even heard in committee. He told San Diego City Attorney Mara Elliott about his decision Tuesday.

“From the outset, my objective for this bill was always to make the process of obtaining public records more efficient and expedient for taxpayers,” Hueso said in a statement. “The Public Records Act is an essential component of California’s strong commitment to open government and transparency, of which I’ve always been an ardent supporter. After hearing from stakeholders on both sides, I concluded the discussion about how to accomplish efficiency in that system requires a lengthier conversation between all interested parties.”

First Amendment Coalition executive director David Snyder says Hueso did the right thing in pulling the unpopular bill.

“In an era when public access to government is more important than it has been in many, many years – and when that access is blocked with disheartening regularity – this bill would have taken California in exactly the wrong direction,” Snyder said in an email.

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