The state Senate passed an amendment Wednesday that would enshrine the California Public Records Act in the state constitution while making local governments foot their own bills, winning praise from the open-government advocates who were pillorying the same lawmakers just a few weeks ago.
SCA 3 by state Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg and state Sen. Mark Leno specifies that all local government agencies are required to comply with the California Public Records Act and the Ralph M. Brown Act, and removes the mandate that the state reimburse local entities for the costs of following these laws. It will be heard next in Assembly policy committees, and if it’s approved by the required two-thirds vote of the Legislature, it would appear on the June 2014 ballot.
“The Senate vote today moves us one step closer to strengthening the state’s most critical transparency laws by putting them in the California Constitution,” Leno, D-San Francisco, said in a news release. “This constitutional amendment permanently protects the right of Californians to inspect public records and attend public meetings. It also clarifies the role of local governments to make their activities open and accessible without expectation of reimbursement from the state.”
Steinberg said the amendment doesn’t preclude strengthening these laws in the future. “Rather, it makes crystal clear that local agencies must comply with those laws and pay the costs to do so, which is important both for our democratic process and the protection of state taxpayers.”
California Newspaper Publishers Association general counsel Jim Ewert said his organization applauds Leno and Steinberg for this effort “which, if approved by voters, will strengthen and protect the public’s fundamental right to access government agency meetings and records in order to meaningfully participate in the decision making process. SCA 3 will ultimately and emphatically resolve the reimbursable mandate issue that has threatened the public’s right to know about local government activities for over 20 years.”
First Amendment Coalition executive director Peter Scheer agreed the amendment “removes any lingering doubt about local governments’ obligation to comply fully with the Public Records Act and Brown Act” and “hardwires the public’s ‘right to know’ to the state constitution.”
These and other organizations were calling for Steinberg’s and Leno’s heads a few weeks ago after they advanced a budget trailer bill that would’ve removed the state’s reimbursements for compliance with the Brown Act and CPRA and let local agencies choose whether or not to comply with key provisions of those laws.
When a public outcry ensued, Leno and Steinberg proposed this amendment but still wanted to withdraw the state reimbursements for the year until voters could approve it. Further pressure compelled the lawmakers and Gov. Jerry Brown to agree to continue the reimbursements for the next fiscal year.