Legislation tucked into the state budget bill would "eviscerate" the public's ability to track tax dollars and hold local officials accountable, open government advocates charged Friday.
"This is the worst assault on the public's right to know I have seen in my 18 years of doing this," said Jim Ewert, general counsel of the California Newspaper Publisher's Association, said Friday as the bill appeared headed for passage.
Language inserted into a budget bill on Wednesday would allow local governments to turn down requests for records without citing a legal reason. It would no longer require government officials to respond to to records requests within 10 days or force them to help the public by describing what records exist.
Gov. Jerry Brown has said he favored some changes aimed at reducing costs, but details did not emerge until a rider bill to the budget was introduced. Ewert ripped the process, saying "not one policy committee read this thing."
The bill was authored by the Senate Budget and Fiscal Review Committee. None of the Bay Area committee members -- chairman Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, and members Jim Beall, D-San Jose; Mark DeSaulnier, D-Concord; and Loni Hancock, D-Berkeley -- responded to emails and calls seeking comment late Friday afternoon.
Brown's spokesman on the budget, H.D. Palmer, said late Friday the budget conference committee had adopted a "compromise" solution by the Legislative Analyst's Office, rather than governor's original proposal. He referred questions about the legislation's effect on public-records access to Leno.
The proposed changes suggest local governments follow current law as a "best practice" but also allows them the option of ignoring transparency provisions by announcing annually that they will not follow them.
It also changes a major provision of the law about electronic records, stripping a requirement that governments release things like data bases and spreadsheets in the form they are kept, instead giving them the option of picking their own format, such as paper copies.
Ostensibly, the changes are designed to stop cash-strapped cities and special districts from demanding the state reimburse them for compiling the Public Records Act, the state's transparency law signed in 1968 by Gov. Ronald Reagan,
But Ewert said no firm dollar amounts had been quantified and that he doubted any real cost reductions would be realized. One lawmaker agreed.
"It's not about saving money — it's all about curtailing an open, transparent government that can be held accountable," said state Sen. Leland Yee, D-San Francisco. "The only way we're held accountable is when the public has the information to understand what were doing."
Terry Francke, general counsel of the good government group Californian's Aware, said the changes "cannot be justified by fiscal necessity; no one has provided any evidence of savings." He accused Brown and legislative leaders of trying to sneak through a gutting of transparency requirements that would never pass otherwise.
The ACLU of Northern California also ripped the changes Friday. "Interfering with public access to public records will only shroud elected officials in more secrecy at a time when transparency is more crucial than ever before," said its spokesman, Will Matthews.