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Public Records Act briefly suspended in state budget

June 24, 2013 12:00:00 AM PDT
Lawmakers are scrambling to change part of a new budget provision that suspends access to public documents. The provision has been harshly criticized, forcing lawmakers to reevaluate. You might see this issue on the ballot next June.

"We listened to the public. We listened to the media, and there's nothing wrong with saying 'We hear you,'" said state Senate President Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento).

In an about-face, the Senate began undoing a provision in the state budget that suspends the California Public Records Act, which allows anyone to walk into a government office and request documents. Officials must comply within 10 days, and the state reimburses locals for gathering the information.

Critics saw the suspension of the 10-day mandate as a way for government to ignore requests and behave badly.

"Taking out the mandate for the Open Records Request Act basically allows cities or county governments who have something to hide, to hide," said state Assemblyman Dan Logue (R-Marysville). "The city of Bell would be a perfect example."

The Public Records Act helped news reporters uncover the outrageous salaries and pensions of city leaders in Bell, including an $800,000-a-year city manager.

It's also helping in the investigation of bad bolts being used on the Bay Bridge project, and whether the new structure is safe.

But Democratic leaders insist the change in transparency, originally Governor Brown's idea, was not about hiding documents.

"There was never an intent to undermine the strength of the Public Records Act. Only to appropriately raise the issue of who should pay," said Steinberg.

After a week of public pressure and bad press, the fix to reinstate the 10-day mandate passed the Senate, with those voting "no" saying they'd like to address other problems in the state budget.

The bill now moves to the Assembly where it's expected to get swift approval. Governor Brown has indicated he'll sign it.

Lawmakers will also vote this week to enshrine the Public Records Act into the state Constitution so that no other Legislature can change it. That will need Californians' approval in next June's election.


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