Journalists, the good government crowd, even some ordinary people who believe in democracy, felt triumphant last week when the farce in Sacramento over what they called the “gutting … neutering … eviscerating” of California’s freedom of information law ended the way they had hoped.
A victory for open government, for freedom, they said, proof that the politicians will respond to the public if people get aroused enough.
Gov. Jerry Brown and the Legislature controlled by Democratic super-majorities that allow them to do anything they want with barely whimpers from the Republicans had backed down on making the state’s public access law, the Ralph M. Brown Act, optional at the discretion of each and every government agency.
In a word, they had wanted to make public access meaningless, but lost their nerve when they saw the public reaction might bring down their whole house of cards.
Still, the delight taken in seeing the all-powerful slinking away in humiliation was largely misplaced.
When it comes to open and transparent government, California is as bad as it gets, ranking 49th in the nation with only frigid North Dakota more disrespectful of the public’s right to know.
Just two months ago, the nonpartisan U.S. Public Interest Research Group reported that, under Brown’s leadership, California had fallen from 43rd place with a “D- grade” to become one of only five “F States” that have “limited and hard to use” websites, fail to provide information on the “public benefits of economic development” by recipient or make their “tax expenditure report available.”
California was only “one of two states in the country without searchable vendor-specific spending information.”
The assault on the public’s right to know by the governor and his pals comes at the very moment when we are learning the federal government is using a million people with security clearances like Pvt. Bradley Manning and high school dropout Edward Snowden to track our phone and Internet activity, even sending up surveillance drones to keep an eye on some of us in case the video cameras everywhere in public places and private businesses miss something.
The governor justified his Brown Act attack in his budget message in January as a way to save money since the state is supposed to foot the bill for all compliance costs.
Few took his proposal seriously until 10 days ago week when the Democrats in the Senate and Assembly attached riders to the budget trailer bills to gut, neuter or eviscerate the Brown Act.
How much would be saved — if anyone believes costs had anything to do with eliminating the public’s ability to know what their leaders are up to — was anybody’s guess.
It’s not like the Brown Act actually works very well as it is. Agencies are supposed to respond promptly to a request but rarely do so, often stalling for many months. They throw up a thousand excuses or dare requesters to sue by denying them outright.
What Senate Bill 71 and Assembly Bill 76 — the trailer bills supported by local legislators Carol Liu and Mike Gatto — sought to do was eliminate the requirements for officials to help requesters define what they want, to provide electronic records in the format they want, to respond within 10 days or justify a delay of 14 days and to specify in writing legal reasons for withholding information.
They could even annually declare they were opting out of the Brown Act altogether.
When both branches of the Legislature voted on party lines to push this forward on June 14, the uproar was furious.
Demands for Brown to veto his own proposal came from every direction — public interest groups that specialize in freedom-of-information issues, victims groups, prosecutors like L.A. County District Atty. Jackie Lacey, newspaper publishers, bloggers.
As the firestorm grew, Brown remained adamant even as he started double-talking about how “Californians have a right to know and should continue to have prompt access to public records.” Presumably, he meant unless officials don’t want them to.
Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg blubbered in a talking points memo about how the “Public Records Act has not been gutted because I would not support such a measure,” even as he insisted the Brown Act provision would remain.
And then an unlikely hero emerged.
Assembly Speaker John Perez — a hardball politician with a record of contempt for the public knowing anything about what the Assembly does — announced late Wednesday that AB76 would be reconsidered, including the Brown Act provisions.
“A lot of folks are waking up on this issue, and there is a hue and cry about it, and we want to be responsive to that,” said his right-hand man, budget Chairman Bob Blumenfield, who will resign next week to become an L.A. City Councilman at twice the pay.
After the Assembly voted to eliminate the Brown Act element from the trailer bill, Brown and Steinberg surrendered, but vowed to fight, mumbling about putting a constitutional amendment before voters to ratify the action they had wanted to take.
No, this wasn’t a victory for freedom or open government, merely a skirmish in what has been a long losing war. But it showed how democracy could be restored if enough of us cared and stood our ground together.