State legislators are poised to finally put some real punch into our state’s public records laws.
Our quality of life depends on it.
As it stands now, local politicians who step in political mud usually get taxpayers to foot their legal bills when they lose weak cases fighting disclosure, often against resident activists who have to pay their own legal bills to stand up to city hall.
Thus, when residents finally win, taxpayers foot the legal bill and the politician gets a pass.
That kind of impunity is creating a massive lack of accountability across local governments.
The California News Publishers Association is promoting a novel concept during this year’s legislature, AB 1479, which seeks to establish penalties – up to $5,000 – when a judge finds that a local government has erroneously refused to release public records.
CNPA has called AB 1479 “the most ambitious freedom of information measure of the year” and they are right.
This Friday, the State Assembly Appropriations Committee will consider the bill.
The CNPA also is calling on residents to directly contact their legislators – here in OC our own freedom-loving, Republican State Assemblyman Bill Brough from Dana Point sits on the committee – and engage them on the idea of real time accountability.
That’s what a small fine does.
It introduces consequences to questionable denials.
It helps ensure that anyone asking for a public record can get it.
Without that, there is no Public Records Act.
And there’s no accountability, which means there’s no functioning democracy.
I can tell you as a local news publisher that the County of Orange – and the politicians who run it – often go out of their way to deny critical public records, especially when the information makes them look bad.
Consider our most recent lawsuit against the County of Orange, which we just won.
When we wanted to see internal email communications about an aborted Op-ed written by County Supervisor Todd Spitzer - regarding his handcuffing of an evangelist on Good Friday 2015 while armed at a local Wahoos' restaurant - he balked and got the county to foot his legal bills to fight disclosure.
They lost on that issue just as everyone knew they would because the law is clear.
But unfortunately, consequences are not.
State legislators have a unique chance this week to change that.