By Assemblymember Brian Maienschein
Californians have been outraged about a provision added into the state’s budget that would deny them access to their government. Under the proposal, compliance with the Public Records Act would have become optional for cities, counties and special districts across the state. For that reason, I voted in opposition to the proposal.
Currently, under the Public Records Act, local government officials must respond to requests from the public for government documents in a timely manner. In recent years, the Public Records Act has been an invaluable tool in uncovering government corruption. In a case that garnered headlines, the news media relied upon the Public Records Act to expose corruption in the City of Bell. Ultimately, the law forced Bell officials to disclose exorbitant salaries and countless unlawful actions, which led to several arrests.
However, under the budget’s proposal, if what transpired in the City of Bell happens again in the future, corrupt city officials could keep taxpayers in the dark by throwing up roadblocks to prevent the disclosure of this information.
I am troubled about how California got into this situation in the first place. While there are open budget committee hearings, too much of what happens at the State Capitol goes on behind closed doors. This is why reforms are needed to require a sufficient public review period before budget votes are taken.
In this case, the Public Records Act item was inserted at the eleventh hour into Assembly Bill 76, a budget trailer bill that was more than 100 pages long. The Legislature had less than 48 hours to review its content before being asked to cast a vote.
After the bill passed and it fell under media scrutiny, additional troubling provisions, such as suspending the requirement for local law enforcement to document and respond to domestic violence cases, were exposed.
This fiasco shows why reforms are needed to make state government more transparent. I am supporting several reforms to require a 72-hour public review period before a final budget. Had this been in place, the Public Records Act item would have been discovered before the Legislature voted on the overall budget, and the Assembly would not have had to take the embarrassing step of a re-vote.
It should come as no surprise that the nonpartisan Sunlight Foundation gave the Legislature a “D” grade for failing to be sufficiently open to the public about how it conducts its business. With this most recent incident, it’s clear we must be vigilant to protect the public.
It is my hope that, going forward, the Public Records Act will not be a political football in budget debates. Preserving public access to information is essential and I will not support efforts to exclude the public from information on the government.
Maienschein, R, San Diego, represents the 77th Assembly District which includes Poway, Rancho Bernardo, 4S Ranch, Carmel Mountain Ranch, Sabre Springs and Rancho Penasquitos.