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Mark Leno responds to Public Records Act hubbub

The story that Tom Peele and I wrote late Friday afternoon about a budget trailer bill essentially letting local governments opt out of their obligations under the Public Records Act – which many say guts the law – drew a lot of righteous outrage over the weekend.

The general policy initially had been suggested by Gov. Jerry Brown, in his budget proposals. State Sen. Mark Leno, who chairs the Senate Budget Committee that authored the bill in question, didn’t get back to me Friday in time for the story’s deadline, but did return my call and leave me a message on Saturday afternoon. (I was off Monday, so I only just heard it this morning.) Here’s what Leno, D-San Francisco, said:

Mark Leno“The policy question before the Legislature was not in support or opposition to the Public Records Act – that is intact. Voters have supported the public records act, that has not changed. The policy question was is it a responsibility of the general fund – and the LAO has pegged the cost at tens of millions of dollars annually – to pay for local government to do what they should and the voters want them to do.

“We do not believe that there will be much change at all. Local government is not going to stop doing this, and if they do, they put themselves, local electeds will put themselves on record as a result of this bill to say ‘We won’t do this anymore.’ So if reporters or the public or anybody else has a problem with that, it’s with their local elected officials.

“Everyone supports the Public Records Act, it’s a question of is it a responsibility of the general fund. And then of course there’s the whole conversation of how the state has been abused by these mandates, locals billing us outrageous amounts for minimal time and expense – that’s a whole other question.”

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Dems war over releasing Assembly spending info

Pressed to release Assembly members’ spending records, Speaker John Perez has snapped right into action and… appointed a task force.

John PerezPerez, D-Los Angeles, today named Assembly Rules Committee Chairwoman Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, to head a legislative records task force that will “review the status, rules and procedures governing legislative records.” That task force will be charged with rolling out a reform proposal by the start of next year’s session.

“I believe that updating our policies to reflect the 21st century world we live in is a vital step toward that effort,” Perez said. “How taxpayer dollars are expended is public information, and it is our job to ensure that the public has access to it. Currently, at my direction, all Assembly staff salaries are available on a publicly accessible web site, and we release audits of the Assembly budget annually.”

But at least one Democrat isn’t waiting for the task force’s recommendations.

Assemblyman Anthony Portantino, D-La Cañada Flintridge, announced today he has introduced an amendment to the Standing Rules of the Assembly calling for all Assembly financial records to be made public.

Anthony Portantino“Californians deserve the respect of the legislature by having access to how their money is being spent,” he said in a news release. “We have used the better part of this legislative year legislating good practices in cities such as Bell and Vernon. We need to lead by example and not shroud our budgets in secrecy.”

Portantino also is looking for “fairness in budgeting for all members’ office expenses and precludes leadership from either rewarding or punishing a member for voting their conscience” – a topic that’s been on his mind lately.

“Unfortunately, leadership needs to be brought into the sunshine kicking and screaming,” he said. “Under HR20, the adoption of members’ budgets would be done in an open and public hearing instead of behind closed doors. Not only will members’ budgets be made available, but, all Assembly leadership, committee, caucuses and all administrative budgets for the Assembly will have to be disclosed in comprehensive detail. It is outrageous, unacceptable and wrong to keep the public in the dark when it comes to spending their money.”

Read the full text of Perez’ statement, after the jump…
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Yee: How much is CSU paying Palin to speak?

State Senator Leland Yee, D-San Francisco, is asking the California State University Stanislaus Foundation to disclose whatever pay has been promised to former Alaska Governor and 2008 Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin for her June 25 speaking engagement at the university.

Few if any students will be able to attend the event that has a per ticket cost of $500, Yee noted in his news release, which announced he sent a letter today to campus president and foundation chair Hamid Shirvani. From the letter:

The sensational nature of former Governor Palin’s political commentary, coupled with an ongoing book tour, has allowed her to charge top dollar for speaking engagements. As was reported in the media, her speaking appearances typically command $100,000 per event. To that end, I request the foundation to respond to the following issues: 1. Is the former governor being compensated by the CSUS Foundation in any form for her participation in the event on June 25th? If so, please describe the amount and nature of the compensation being awarded to the former governor. 2. Please disclose any contracts between the former governor and the CSUS Foundation involving the June 25 speaking engagement.

Yee noted the Foundation’s stated mission is to “to supplement services and funding provided by the state so that our students, our faculty and our community experience a margin of excellence that private support affords,” and he wants to know whether money is being diverted from students to pay Palin’s speaking fees.

“At a time when students are struggling to afford an education at CSU, I would hope that spending potentially hundreds of thousands of dollars on a guest speaker for a black-tie gala would be low on the priority list,” he said in his news release. “Money that is spent on bringing an out-of-touch former politician to campus could be spent on scholarships and other financial assistance during these challenging budget times.”

Yee said CSU officials have argued that the contract with Palin prevents the foundation from disclosing how much they are spending for her appearance, yet a state law he authored in 2008 prohibits state or local agencies from allowing an outside entity to control the disclosure of information that is otherwise subject to the California Public Records Act (CPRA). The law states that regardless of any contract term to the contrary, a contract between a private entity and a state or local agency is subject to the same disclosure requirements as other public records.

Yee has another bill now pending, SB 330, which would clarify that campus foundations and auxiliaries must adhere to the CPRA. CSU and University of California foundations and auxiliaries often perform government functions and are staffed entirely by university administrators, yet despite their sole purpose being for the benefit of the schools, CSU and UC administrations argue that they are private entities that need not adhere to open government laws. The state Senate passed SB 330 on a 37-1 vote in January, and the bill now awaits a hearing in the Assembly Higher Education Committee. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger last year vetoed a similar bill that the Assembly had passed 76-0 and the state Senate had passed 35-1.

“It is time for CSU and UC administrators to stop acting like they are running private country clubs,” Yee said today. “These are public institutions that should embrace transparency and accountability.”

3

‘Vexatious requestor’ bill pulled due to opposition

Whenever somebody moves to limit or close the flow of public records, I get a bad feeling in the pit of my stomach.

Today’s ulcer comes courtesy of Attorney General Jerry Brown and Assemblywoman Wilmer Amina Carter, D-Rialto, who in February put forth AB 520, which would let a judge issue an order limiting the number and scope of requests a particular person can make under the California Public Records Act. “The bill would require the court, in issuing the order, to determine that the requestor has sought records under the act for an improper purpose, including, but not limited to, the harassment of a public agency or its employees,” according to the Legislative Counsel’s digest.

As someone who uses the CPRA often, I see problems with this “vexatious requestor” bill – agencies petitioning judges any time they feel they’re being picked on. Simply put, it’s none of a government agency’s business why someone wants public records – it’s not their place, nor a judge’s, to pick and choose between who will and won’t get records that should be available to anyone and everyone. Audits have shown many state agencies already fail to comply with CPRA, and this bill could give them yet another way of tying up requests.

The California Newspaper Publishers Association is dead-set against it, and open-government group Californians Aware opposes the bill not only on principle but as inherently legally flawed.

The Assembly Judiciary Committee was to take up the bill at its hearing yesterday, but Carter pulled it “in order to work with the recent opposition that has come to light,” she said today. “The bill will require further research to develop, if possible, a measure that would address the significant consumption of public resources related to repetitive public records requests that appear to be abusive in nature. First and foremost, however, we must protect the State’s Open Records Act and the public’s right to oversee its government. Unless that can be assured, and opposition to the bill removed, the bill will not move forward.”

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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.”