California's Latest Budget-Cutting Target: Public Records

Photograph Camilo Jimenez/Getty Images

Jerry Brown, California’s straight-talking two-time governor, is known for making hard and often unpopular choices in the name of fiscal discipline. The Democrat cut child-care subsidies for working mothers and pensions for the elderly. He raised taxes on the rich, which no one thought California voters could stomach. All this led him to accomplish a near-impossible task: balancing California’s budget.

Now Brown has a new target: the public’s right to access government records. The state of California reimburses localities millions of dollars each year for processing public requests for government documents, according to a report in the San Jose Mercury News. To cut down on those costs, lawmakers inserted a provision into the budget passed last Friday that makes it easier for local officials to turn down requests. The provision, supported by Brown, would allow officials to deny records requests without giving a reason and would also scuttle a rule that requires officials to respond to requests within 10 days. Aaron Mackey, staff attorney with the Reporter’s Committee for Freedom of the Press, says it can be interpreted to mean that officials don’t have to respond to requests at all. “It’d be like a black hole,” he says. “You can send off a request, and they never get back to you.”

Not surprisingly, news organizations are arguing that the proposal will make government more secretive. In recent years, California journalists have used the state’s 35-year-old public records laws to expose official corruption. In 2010, for example, the Los Angeles Times found that Bell, one of the poorest cities in L.A. County, was paying its top officials some of the highest salaries in the country. “This is the worst assault on the public’s right to know I have seen in my 18 years of doing this,” Jim Ewert, general counsel of the California Newspaper Publisher’s Association, told the San Jose Mercury News.

Neither Brown nor the lawmakers behind the provision have put a dollar value on the cost of complying with public-records requests. Cities are allowed to charge the public fees for processing hard-to-find documents tucked away in far-off file cabinets and databases. Whatever the burden, you can argue that the whole process would be a lot smoother—and cheaper—if officials made more records public in the first place.

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