The California Public Records Act (CPRA) is gravely threatened by stealth amendments revealed for the first time yesterday as part of a “trailer bill” to the new state budget. Instead of the relatively minor cost-saving tweaks proposed earlier by the Governor and approved in legislative committees, the actual amending language will gut key transparency safeguards in California’s most important open-government law, according to the First Amendment Coalition.
How, exactly, will the budget trailer bill undercut the CPRA and set back open government?
1) Public access to data controlled by local governments, so important to open-data and big-data initiatives, will come to an end. The final trailer bill, SB 71, eliminates the requirement of existing law that agencies must make available “electronic” records or information in “any format” in which the agency already holds them. Gov Code sec. 6253.9(a)(1). Instead, according to SB 71, “the local agency may determine the format of electronic data to be provided in response to a request for information.”
This change will empower local governments to limit data access to situations in which the requested data will show government agencies and officials in a positive light. All other requests for data will be blocked by producing data in formats that are unusable in databases. Example: Requests for data held in .xls (Excel) or .csv formats will be produced (if at all) as .pdf files–even though the agency has the data in the requested formats and therefore can provide it in the requested formats at no cost.
2) Local governments, when denying written requests for public records, will no longer be required to give a reason for the denial. SB 71 purports to make that common sense requirement (found in Gov Code sec. 6255(b)) completely optional. What does optional mean? You can be sure that all lawyers for cities, counties or school boards,once they become aware of this change, will advise their clients to give no reasons for denying records.
3) Local governments may even take the position that SB 71′s changes free them from any obligation to communicate–at all!—with requesters about the status of a denied CPRA request. Agencies that believe requested records are exempt from disclosure could elect to say nothing to the requester, leaving him/her in the dark, unable to determine–without suing–whether the requested records will be disclosed or withheld.
Tell Governor Brown to veto the provisions of SB 71 that would effect these changes in existing law. Copy the email message below and send it to FAC@firstamendmentcoalition.org with an email message for the Governor and his staff (which we will print out and deliver). You can use the email message content provided or delete it and write an email in your own words.
Email subject line: Protect the CPRA; veto SB 71 section
To: Office of Governor Jerry Brown
As a California resident and voter who cares greatly about government accountability and transparency, I write to urge Governor Brown to veto those portions of the budget trailer bill, SB 71, that purport to make optional local governments’ adherence to key parts of the California Public Records Act.
The final version of these changes, found in SB 71 section 4 (adding section 6252.8 to the Gov Code) will do far more damage to the CPRA than the amendments initially proposed by the Governor to reduce the state’s costs for mandate reimbursement. SB 71 will:
Allow local governments, when denying CPRA requests, to give no reason for the denial. This makes it impossible to know whether an agency acted properly in withholding requested records.
Allow local governments to decline to communicate AT ALL regarding the status of a CPRA request. Agencies that have decided to deny a request (legitimately or not) may opt not to communicate that fact, leaving the requester guessing about whether she will receive records or not.
Allow local governments to block meaningful access to government data. Under SB 71, agencies may provide data in formats precluding database analysis (e.g., pdf files) even though the agency holds the information in the requested, database-compatible formats (e.g., .csv or .xls).
This change in the law creates no cost-saving; its only purpose is to permit the de facto denial of data requests where government officials suspect the data will not show them in a positive light.
In the strongest terms, I urge Governor Brown to exercise his authority to veto these selected provisions of SB 71, contained in section 4 of the bill.
Thank you for your attention to this urgent matter.
You can also reach Governor Jerry Brown via email here, or by phone at (916)445-2841.
Let him know you value government accountability and transparency in California. Ask him to veto the the provisions of SB 71 contained in section 4 of the bill.