Without the state Public Records Act, we would never know about the Oakley City Manager's $366,500 taxpayer-funded mortgage scheme, the Washington Township hospital CEO's $800,000-plus annual compensation or the retired San Ramon Valley fire chief's $310,000 yearly pension.
We would be ignorant of broken bolts on the Bay Bridge, the cover-up of Moraga teachers sexually abusing students, a BART train operator who collected salary and benefits totaling $193,407, the former BART general manager who received $420,000 the year after she was fired or the Port of Oakland executives who spent $4,500 one night at a Texas strip club.
As the state Legislature declared in the preamble to the records law, "access to information concerning the conduct of the people's business is a fundamental and necessary right of every person in this state."
Yet the Legislature and Gov. Jerry Brown are gutting the law.
As a result, local government officials will only have to relinquish documents when they get around to it. If they deny access, they will no longer need to provide a written reason. If they have easily searchable electronic data, they can instead print it out and hide alarming numbers in reams of paper.
If state lawmakers care one iota about transparency -- or if Californians hammer them for what they've done -- they will reverse this appalling action.
Legislators know all about burying information. They made these changes to the state Public Records Act last week at the last minute by slipping language into one of 15 state budget bills now sitting on the governor's desk. While legislators and Brown touted on-time passage of the spending plan, they didn't mention they'd also made it far more difficult for taxpayers to determine how local governments use their money.
Lawmakers hide behind the notion that this change will save the state money, since it has to reimburse local governments for costs of complying with mandates it has imposed since 1975. That includes Public Records Act amendments requiring local governments to provide written responses to document requests within 10 days and to provide the records in electronic format if they're available that way.
Rather than pay the costs of compliance, lawmakers ended the mandates. The governor first proposed suspending the requirements; the Legislature instead permanently killed them. They all point to recommendations from the Legislative Analyst's Office, which estimated that this would save the state tens of millions of dollars. We usually admire the work of the LAO, but in this case it offered no justification for the number, which appears to be a wild guess.
More important, it doesn't account for billions saved when residents -- and, yes, the media -- have the ability to examine records and act as watchdogs.
The LAO said local government officials should decide whether to comply with disclosure rules. Ask residents of Bell how well that would work. The idea is absurd. It's not responsible public officials who will balk at providing records. It's the bad ones -- the ones who don't want us to know what's really going on. The state is giving them license to operate in secret.
It is unconscionable.