Groups sue state for legislative records

Berkeley-based MAPLight.org — a nonpartisan nonprofit that illuminates connections between Money And Politics with its database of campaign contributions and legislative outcomes — and the San Rafael-based California First Amendment Coalition filed a lawsuit today in Sacramento County Superior Court against the state Office of Legislative Counsel demanding California’s legislative voting records in electronic format.

“The Office of Legislative Counsel is obviously afraid that release of the legislative database to MAPLight.org will make it too easy for voters to connect financial contributions by special interests to specific votes and other accommodating actions by legislators,” said Peter Scheer, executive director of CFAC, which is dedicated to free speech and government transparency. “And, legislators should be worried. But fear of embarrassment is hardly a basis for withholding government records from public view. Just the opposite.”

“In the age of the Internet, there is no justification for government to maintain monopoly control over online access to public records,” said Scheer. “This is especially true when the records — bills, amendments, votes and the like — are the public roadmap for the laws that govern us all. It’s frankly hard to imagine any public records that could be more ‘public’ than these.”

MAPLight.org already gives the public a fantastic, free online window onto Congress, tabulating data to show links between campaign contributions and how lawmakers vote. It wants to do the same for California.

“It’s not as if we’re asking them to do additional work,” MAPLight.org executive director Dan Newman said. “This database already exists. It has already been paid for by the taxpayers of California. The Office of Legislative Counsel is required by law to share this information in whatever format they have in their possession. What the Legislature is giving the public now is the equivalent of a 10,000 page printout — they’re refusing to share the one simple spreadsheet on which it was created. This makes searching and analysis nearly impossible.”

“It will be a brighter day for all of us when government sees itself as working for the public who pays the bills,” he said.

MAPLight.org says it asked for the database July 1 under the state’s Legislative Open Records Act, the California Public Records Act and California Government Code 10248, which says the Legislative Counsel’s office must make available, for each current legislative session, certain bill information in electronic format; the request was denied July 16. Scheer asked for the same data Aug. 5, and received a denial Aug. 18. Their attorneys contacted state officials in October asking them to reconsider, but again were eventually denied.

I’ve e-mailed Legislative Counsel Diane Boyer-Vine as well as one of her deputies, J. Christopher Dawson, who issued the letters denying MAPLight.org’s and CFAC’s requests; I’ll update this if I hear back from them.

UPDATE @ 2:47 P.M.: Chief Deputy Legislative Counsel Jeffrey DeLand just called back: “At this point we don’t have a comment in part because we haven’t seen the paperwork, we haven’t been served.”

Josh Richman

Josh Richman covers state and national politics for the Bay Area News Group. A New York City native, he earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri and reported for the Express-Times of Easton, Pa. for five years before coming to the Oakland Tribune and ANG Newspapers in 1997. He is a frequent guest on KQED Channel 9’s “This Week in Northern California;” a proud father; an Eagle Scout; a somewhat skilled player of low-stakes poker; a rather good cook; a firm believer in the use of semicolons; and an unabashed political junkie who will never, EVER seek elected office.