Facing intense pressure from the state's media organizations and government watchdogs, California's Assembly leaders agreed on Wednesday to preserve tough provisions of the state's open records laws -- but their counterparts in the Senate swiftly threw up a roadblock.

Now, it appears local governments will be free to stall citizens' requests for information until voters consider a ballot measure next year.

The bizarre undermining of one of California's most-lauded laws began with a budget negotiation over the last two weeks between Gov. Jerry Brown and the Legislature. Anxious to avoid required reimbursements to local governments for the cost of making public records available, legislators moved to suspend key provisions of the law.

In particular, public agencies will no longer be required to respond within 10 days to requests for information.

But now, with Gov. Jerry Brown poised to sign the budget, lawmakers are split over a campaign to restore funding to save the transparency law.

During a topsy-turvy day at the state Capitol, Assembly Speaker John Perez announced the Assembly's support to back off changes that critics charged would gut access to local government records by making the legal requirement a "suggested best practice."

"To be clear, this means that the California Public Records Act will remain intact without any changes as part of the budget -- consistent with the Assembly's original action," Perez, D-Los Angeles, said in a statement.


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The California Newspaper Publishers Association called for a veto, and all of the state's major newspapers, including this one, ran editorials on Wednesday deploring the proposed changes. Perez said the Assembly would restore the funding that reimburses local governments to comply with the law.

But later in the afternoon, Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, rejected the Assembly's plan, calling instead for a statewide vote on a constitutional amendment next year to decide whether local governments should be forced to follow the act at their own expense.

Steinberg and Sen. Mark Leno said they will keep Perez's bill "on hold" and vote on it only if they learn that local governments are refusing to fulfill public records requests.

If that happens, the Senate would vote to restore funding, said Leno, D-San Francisco, who chairs the Legislature's joint budget committee and will on Thursday introduce the bill to place the amendment on the ballot.

"The meter is running," said Leno, noting the cost to the state to fund the records act is estimated at about $20 million a year. "If we rely upon (cities) complying with this law, we can save ourselves that money, but if anyone breaks that, we will immediately take up the Assembly version."

Brown, meanwhile, issued a statement late Wednesday, declaring his support for the constitutional amendment.

"We all agree that Californians have a right to know and should continue to have prompt access to public records, and I support enshrining these protections in California's constitution," the governor said.

In interviews Wednesday with 15 Bay Area state senators and assembly members, all of them said they want the Public Records Act kept intact; only those on the Assembly side were willing to have the state pay for it while several senators said they were unwilling to do so.

"I think (the Assembly bill) is a good short-term fix, and we can let the voters decide for the long-term solution," said Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo. "It is kind of ridiculous that we should be paying for that."

But public records advocates were clear that any fight over funding the Public Records Act is bad for California.

The pending changes to the Public Records Act "are an affront to Californians who participate in local government (and) will make it easier for public agencies to ignore requests ... or provide no reason at all for denying them," Jim Ewert, the general counsel of the California Newspaper Publishers Association, wrote in a letter to Brown asking him for the veto.

The changes, buried late last week in a "trailer bill" to the state budget, would allow more than 2,000 local government agencies across the state, such as counties, cities, school districts and water and sewer districts, to opt out of the Public Records Act on a yearly basis.

However, the executive director of the California League of Cities said Wednesday that if the changes are made, cities will continue to make records public. "The sky isn't falling," said the director, Chris McKenzie. "We didn't ask for this. But the consequences of providing information is very, very significant, especially for elected officials. Cities will continue to act in a responsible manner."

Republican lawmakers on Wednesday urged Brown to use his veto power.

"In allowing public agencies to opt out of important (Public Records Act) mandates, the bill limits transparency of public documents and encourages secrecy in government," Sen. Joel Anderson, R-San Diego, wrote to Brown in a letter urging a veto.

"Public opinion is on the side of openness and sunshine, not in making it harder to access information," said Larry Sokoloff, a Mountain View attorney and lecturer in media law at San Jose State and Cal State East Bay. The Public Records Act would simply not be effective on a local level without the weight of legal requirements behind it, said Tim Crews, publisher of the twice-weekly Sacramento Valley Mirror in Glenn County and a legend in California journalism for his aggressive use of public records requests.

"If you want to report news rather than just regurgitate things, you have to use it," he said in a phone interview Wednesday. "If we are going to just rely (on the voluntary release of information) by the government we might as well be living in a tin-pot dictatorship."