Californians have a legal right to “information concerning the conduct of the people’s business,” but actually getting those public records is easier said than done.
In the past few months alone, a former employee of the San Jose mayor’s office sued the city for “perpetually extending its own deadline” for responding to records requests, while Mendocino County, facing the threat of litigation, repealed an ordinance to charge as much as $150 per hour to locate, review and redact documents.
These “loopholes” have prompted a new initiative that proponents say would give the law much-needed teeth and dramatically overhaul access to public information in California. It was filed Wednesday by Consumer Watchdog, a nonprofit advocacy group heavily involved in legislative and political fights over issues such as insurance rates, medical malpractice and oil drilling.
“The initiative is essential to make sure that the promise under the constitution to access public records means something,” said Jerry Flanagan, the organization’s litigation director.
Flanagan said endless delays and overly broad exemptions have made California’s public records laws “largely an empty promise” and the Legislature is uninterested in fixing that. A bill last year that would have established a standard two-year retention period for records across state government passed the Assembly unanimously — then was quietly killed in the Senate.
The proposed initiative would require agencies to hold onto records for a minimum of five years and fulfill requests within 30 days, unless there are extraordinary circumstances. It would also extend public access to records from private contractors who do government work, limit the use of attorney-client privilege and deliberative process exemptions to deny the release of documents and communications, and make public investigations into alleged misconduct by legislators.
New disclosures would extend beyond public records. The measure would require lawmakers to publish on their websites a schedule of meetings with lobbyists, fundraisers and public events they attend.
As first reported by Politico, Consumer Watchdog said it is setting aside $5 million to qualify the initiative for the November 2024 ballot, which the organization expects will be far more challenging and expensive than passing it. Once the attorney general prepares a title and summary, proponents will have six months to collect at least 546,651 valid signatures from California voters.
Flanagan said they do not anticipate a well-funded and organized opposition to the measure, even though it would demand greater transparency not just from state government and elected officials but also those who do business with them.
“If we don’t take on the pieces that we’re taking on, it would be a Pyrrhic victory,” Flanagan said.
More for voters in 2024? Another potential measure was filed Wednesday — this one by a coalition of community, environmental justice and public health groups to counter an oil industry referendum already on the November 2024 ballot.
The referendum seeks to permanently block a 2022 law that bans new oil wells within 3,200 feet of homes, hospitals, schools and other sensitive places. The proposed initiative would effectively put the law back in place.
Martha Dina Argüello, Physicians for Social Responsibility L.A. executive director, told CalMatters: “Given that the Legislature has already made a clear choice in support of the setbacks, and the oil industry (was)… able to confuse the issue, we wanted to give California voters a crystal clear choice.”
But the competing measures on the same ballot may get confusing: If the initiative gets more votes than the number of votes to overturn the law, it would take effect. If voters uphold the law and the initiative still gets more votes, it would supersede the law.
Alexei Koseff is a reporter with CalMatters.