The Guild helps beat back a sneak attack on sunshine

Concerned that trailer legislation slipped into California’s 2013-14 budget bill would seriously hamstring journalists (and non-journalists) to whom public records access is important and even crucial, the Pacific Media Workers Guild joined a chorus of public-interest groups, news outlets and individuals in a successful effort to keep the mandatory aspect of California Public Records Act (PRA) compliance intact.

And it’s possible that an amendment locking some key parts of the PRA into the state Constitution will appear on the ballot next June.

The PMWG’s Legislative & Political and Executive committees deserve credit for moving swiftly to speak out on portions of Senate Bill 71, one of two measures – the other was Assembly Bill 76 – that would have made compliance with certain PRA sections voluntary for local entities such as cities, counties, school districts, community college districts and special districts.

Thanks also to the San Rafael-based First Amendment Coalition and Carmichael-based Californians Aware, sunshine advocacy organizations that sounded the alert when the bills were introduced.

Equally noteworthy, the Sacramento-based California Newspaper Publishers Association, which is often at odds with the PMWG on labor-management issues, works tirelessly for open government and played a big role in the effort to persuade legislators to scratch the bills’ anti-sunshine sections.

Last and by no means least, a tip of the cap goes to legislative advocate Ignacio Hernandez, the PMWG’s eyes, ears and voice in the state Capitol.

The PMWG, upon learning of the attempt to sabotage the PRA, sent a letter to Gov. Jerry Brown urging that the anti-sunshine parts be removed or that he veto SB 71.

“We object specifically,” the letter said, “to provisions that would:

“1. Empower local agencies to ‘determine the format of electronic data to be provided in response to a request for information.’ SB 71 would eliminate the mandate in CPRA Section 6253.9(a)(1) that agencies make electronic documents or information available in any format in which the agencies already hold them, enabling the agencies to hide certain data that the CPRA defines as publicly disclosable.

“2. Eliminate the requirement in CPRA Section 6255(b) that local agencies give a statute- or case law-based reason for withholding public records that are requested in writing. SB 71 would make such justifications optional, the likely result being that government counsels will advise agencies to give no reason when withholding records.

“Even worse,” the letter continued, “there is a strong likelihood that local governments would officially argue that SB 71 permits them to remain totally silent with requesters about the status of denied requests for records, leaving the requesters unable to learn, without suing, whether the records they have requested will be disclosed. Such legal proceedings would cost time and money to requesters, taxpayers or both.”

SB 71 not only would make it difficult for journalists covering local government to do their jobs but also would violate the spirit if not the letter of Article 1, Section 3, of the state Constitution, which enshrines into the document the people’s right to know what their governments are doing and why, the PMWG said. The section was added to the constitution as Proposition 59, which voters approved by an 83-17 ratio in November 2004.

“Equally egregious is the surreptitious manner in which SB 71 and other trailer bills have been attached to the budget package,” the letter said.

On the heels of the Legislature’s and Brown’s retreat on the bills came the news that Sen. Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) and Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) had introduced a state constitutional amendment (SCA 3) that would require local entities to comply with both the PRA and the open-meetings law known as the Ralph M. Brown Act.

In addition, the amendment would excuse the state from having to reimburse the local agencies’ compliance-related expenses.

To qualify for the ballot, SCA 3 must get a two-thirds nod in each chamber, meaning 27 “ayes” in the Senate and 54 in the Assembly. Details about the amendment are available here.

Richard Knee is the Pacific Media Workers Guild’s California vice president (acting) and a member of the local’s Legislative and Political Committee. He is a freelance journalist based in San Francisco.

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Michael Applegate

Pacific Media Workers Executive Officer