Gutting public's right to see records would be huge mistake

Gov. Brown should veto the budget bill that would let official business escape scrutiny. Citizens' right to know what government is up to is paramount.

SACRAMENTO — Given half a chance — any rationale at all — governments invariably will try to restrict the citizenry's access to public information. Especially if it might shine the light on official stupidity or misbehavior.

That's just human nature. Companies do it too.

The difference for governments, of course, is that they're living off of, and are supposed to be working for, the public.

The people have a right to know whether officials are performing like dunces, as in building a new span of the San Francisco Bay Bridge with weak bolts, or lining their pockets with taxpayers' money, as they were in the city of Bell.

U.S. and district attorneys can't investigate every suspect government operation. That's where the news media step in, especially newspapers.

It's why in this state we have a California Public Records Act, signed into law by Gov. Ronald Reagan 45 years ago and expanded under Gov. Gray Davis. It declares that access to government information is a "fundamental and necessary right of every person in the state."

But now Gov. Jerry Brown — with the Democratic Legislature's lame acquiescence — is is trying to weaken the act. No, not weaken. Gut.

The governor rationalizes that it would save money. But he can't say how much. It would not save anything during the fiscal year that begins July 1, his Finance Department says. But neither has it estimated how much the act's evisceration might save in the future.

The nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office has loosely pegged the dollar savings at tens of millions a year because the state no longer would need to reimburse local governments for their cost of providing the public with certain records. Which is silly anyway. Local governments should be providing the records on their own dime. Now they're overbilling the state, which must pay up because releasing the info is a Sacramento mandate.

Brown's answer to avoiding the reimbursement is to remove the mandate. Under his legislation, passed as part of the state budget and awaiting his signature, key provisions of the Public Records Act would be made optional for local governments.

What a deal! If abiding by a certain law is costly or inconvenient, just ignore it. No penalty. Only governments apparently can get away with that.

Under current law, local officials must respond to a records request within 10 days and make the documents available electronically.

Brown's bill would allow local elected officials to ignore the requirements by casting a voice vote once a year. If a records request was denied, the reason wouldn't have to be explained. If approved, the documents could be released in a basically unusable form, such as on old fashioned carbon-copy paper.

The Times and other newspapers use the Public Records Act to massage electronic data on spreadsheets and ferret out government incompetence and dishonesty.

"Free access to government records is essential for exposing public corruption and keeping officials accountable," says Times Editor Davan Maharaj. "In just the last few years, we've seen several major corruption scandals, notably Bell, that were uncovered by reporters — and residents — who were able to use public records to connect the dots.

"Technology is making it easier for us to use public data to get at larger truths. This makes government more transparent, and helps us all understand how our tax dollars are being used."

But "making records harder to access," Maharaj adds, "is a big step backward for all Californians…. It unnecessarily shields officials from public scrutiny."

Democrats should know better, but they voted for the bill nearly unanimously.

Sen. Mark Leno (D-San Francisco), the Senate budget chairman, argued during the floor debate that local governments wouldn't dare ignore the law because it would risk angering their constituents. Right.

If we left it up to the good judgment of humans to abide by laws, there wouldn't be a need to punish politicians for corruption or bigots for hate crimes.

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