California’s Public Records Act, signed by then-Gov. Ronald Reagan in 1968, gives the public the legal right to examine governmental documents, with a few specified exceptions.
The state’s voters bolstered the PRA in 2004 by passing a constitutional amendment placed on the ballot by the Legislature.
Having a law on the books, even one with constitutional backing, is one thing; making state and local officials comply with it can often be difficult as journalists, the law’s most active users, can attest.
While some agencies and local governments comply readily with PRA requests, others use a variety of techniques to avoid compliance. They string out responses, demand more specificity on what is being sought, try to charge exorbitant fees for copying documents and sometimes just stonewall, forcing those seeking information to file lawsuits.
A recent judicial ruling in Los Angeles demonstrates the difficulty that sometimes occurs when an agency doesn’t want to release information that could be embarrassing.
Consumer Watchdog, an organization that often intervenes in regulatory issues, has been fighting a running battle with Insurance Commissioner Ricardo Lara from virtually the first moment Lara took office four years ago.
In 2020, the organization sued Lara’s office seeking communications pertaining to news media reports that Lara or his underlings had met with lobbyists for a company seeking permission to change ownership. It alleged that the Department of Insurance had not adequately responded to a PRA request.
The suit demanded records pertaining to “any individuals employed by or representing” Allied Underwriters, a worker’s compensation insurer. At one point, Consumer Watchdog submitted a sworn declaration by former Assemblyman Rusty Areias that he had informed the insurance department that he had been hired by Allied. Areias’ lobbying firm later sued Allied, alleging that it had reneged on promised lobbying fees.
The department responded that it was unreasonable to ask for records of a broad nature and insisted that it had released all of the records it could identify as pertinent.
The case eventually wound up before Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Mitchell Beckloff, who issued a ruling last month almost fully favoring Lara.
“The court’s ruling will likely embolden government officials to shield government records from the public view and raises serious questions about the state’s Public Records Act that may need to be addressed by the Legislature or at the ballot box,” said Jerry Flanagan, Consumer Watchdog’s litigation director. “Access to information concerning the conduct of the people’s business is a fundamental right of every person in this state and is a critical weapon in the fight against government corruption.”
There’s more than a little irony attached to the organization’s self-portrayal as an advocate of transparency. Through decades of intervening in regulatory cases, both at the Department of Insurance and the Public Utilities Commission, Consumer Watchdog has steadfastly refused to reveal the identities of its supporters.
One cannot discern whether Consumer Watchdog or Lara holds the moral high ground in their running feud. However, the case underscores how unwieldy the Public Records Act can be when an agency chooses to fight, rather than comply with, PRA requests.
Governmental entities have an unlimited ability to fight legal battles with their platoons of taxpayer-financed attorneys while those seeking information must hire their own legal talent.
Is there a better way to handle disputes over PRA requests?
Assemblyman Vince Fong, a Bakersfield Republican, believes there is. He has introduced legislation that would create an ombudsman within the state auditor’s office to settle such disagreements without involving judges. It’s a concept that could make the PRA a user-friendlier law.
Dan Walters is a reporter with CalMatters.