June 18, 2013

On Campus: Public rights to records at risk

A budget trailer bill heading toward a vote would de-fang the California Public Records Act, making key provisions strictly voluntary. The state says it would save millions, but no one can calculate how much taxpayers could lose.

I love my job. Sometimes I feel overwhelmed by all the stories to be written, board agendas to be summarized and budgets to make sense of, but having a job that's just too interesting is a good problem to have.

Which is why I read with dismay a footnote to the California budget working its way toward a floor vote. The Legislature is moving to de-fang the California Public Records Act, saying the change would save millions.

But no one can calculate how much taxpayers stand to lose.

Senate Bill 71, revised last week in an Assembly committee, would make compliance with key parts of the Act voluntary "best practices" that can be overruled by just announcing at a public meeting they will no longer be followed. At issue are the 10-day deadline, letting the person who requested the record know if an answer is delayed or denied and why, and providing the requested file electronically.

Digital formats offer a faster, easier, cheaper way to see and sort a large file. Businesses save time, manpower and money by organizing information through web pages and electronic files. For those public agencies still coping with the jump to digital, delaying the move seems a dubious way to save money.

Journalists watchdog public money, but we could do it far better if more records were available online and so could you. Finding clear and verifiable information online makes government far more transparent. Few people have hours to spend standing at request windows, especially as government agencies cut away at the staff that used to man them.

In closing, the bill declares the change would limit the public's right of access to public information. But that's O.K., it continues, because local agencies ought to be able to decide for themselves how they perform their public duties.

But in effect, the law also let them decide what anyone knows about how they perform their public duties. In the long run that seems more likely to cost, in dollars and trust, far more than the state could save.

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