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Pass This Information-Access Bill

Last year, a bill sponsored by state Sen. Byron Sher (D-Stanford) to put some teeth into the 1968 California Public Records Act and make it easier for citizens to gain access to state records sailed through the Legislature without a peep of opposition. Passing the Senate 35-0 and the Assembly 78-0, it went to the desk of Gov. Gray Davis. Sher and his supporters, including the California Newspaper Publishers Assn., were stunned when Davis vetoed the measure.

Now Sher is back with a similar bill, SB 2027. It’s sure to pass the Legislature again. This time, we hope Davis appreciates the importance of this bill and signs it into law.

Current law allows any Californian to request access to state public records, but there is no effective lever to make a state agency comply. Many times agencies do produce information, but requests are too often ignored or rejected arbitrarily. The only recourse is to get a court to force compliance with the law, a time-consuming and costly process.

Sher’s bill provides for a simpler approach, appealing to the state attorney general, who would review the decision and issue an opinion on a denied request. If an agency is found in the wrong but still refuses to release the records, the seeker would have to go to court. But the state could be penalized $100 a day, up to a maximum $10,000, for improperly withholding the information.

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Davis claimed that the earlier bill, SB 48, would place the attorney general in a conflict of interest because the office would be advising the agency in question, then also representing it in court if necessary. Sher’s bill overcomes this problem by having appeals from records-seekers handled by a special unit that does not do any legal work for the agency involved. The agency could also hire an outside lawyer.

SB 48 should not have been vetoed. Sher now has gone the extra mile in trying to accommodate Davis’ declared objection to the bill. SB 2027 cleared its first committee hurdle this week on a 5-0 vote and deserves quick, overwhelming approval, including the governor’s.


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