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Proposed budget would weaken California's public records laws

Crime, Law and JusticeBudgets and BudgetingLocal GovernmentJerry BrownPolitics

SACRAMENTO -- Public records laws would be weakened under the budget deal scheduled for a vote in the Legislature on Friday.

Administration officials say the change could help the state avoid tens of millions of dollars needed reimburse local governments and agencies for complying with the laws. But advocates are concerned that easing requirements will make it tougher for the media and the public to access records.

“Agencies have not demonstrated a tremendous willingness to provide information, especially on their own," said Jim Ewert, general counsel for the California Newspaper Publishers Assn.

Under the budget, there would be no requirement to respond to a records request within 10 days or provide documents electronically, a provision currently in force that can make analyzing government data significantly easier.

In addition, officials would no longer be required to help people navigate complicated systems and submit the most effective request for records they seek.

Officials can decide not to comply with those guidelines by simply making an annual announcement at public meetings.

H.D. Palmer, a spokesman for Brown's Department of Finance, defended the proposal, which is contained in SB 71, one of several trailer bills expected to be considered along with the budget.

"This action does not send a message to local governments to ignore public records [requests]," he said. Palmer pointed to a 2004 constitutional amendment intended to ensure access to government documents.

Chris McKenzie, executive director for the League of California Cities, said he expected local governments to continue complying with all aspects of the law, even if they're not mandatory.

"It's unfortunate the state won't be paying for it," he said. "But given that they haven't been paying for it in the past, this is not a sea change."

Ewert was more skeptical. If officials were going to be helpfully providing information anyway, he said, "why was there a need to create a public records act in the first place?”

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Twitter: @chrismegerian

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