Santa Clara has joined a growing list of government bodies that are putting public records requests on the back burner amid the coronavirus outbreak. California cities have been stripping down to essential functions during the statewide lockdown—a move that rained blows on government transparency.
While Santa Clara isn’t issuing straight-up denials like Fresno, Mission City mouthpiece Lenka Wright tells Fly that the county’s stay-the-heck-home fiat has impacted its “ability to respond in the same manner it did prior to the pandemic.”
“Due to only providing essential services, the city has limited staffing across all departments to process these requests” she says.
Wright added that Santa Clara has responded to 27 requests since the order was enacted in mid-March. But First Amendment advocates say Wright’s excuse isn’t good enough.
“Government Code Section 6250 states that access to records ‘is a fundamental and necessary right of every person in this state,”’ Glen Smith, a legal fellow at the First Amendment Coalition (FAC), tells Fly. “This right is reinforced by Article 1, section 3(b) of the California Constitution. The city’s determination that access to records is not essential is contrary to the law.”
The FAC has recently joined forces with a number of pro-transparency including the Society of Professional Journalists and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press to fight the baseless denials. “The public’s right of access remains and is crucial in times of crisis,” the group wrote in a recent release. “Just as the government’s power is at its apex during a crisis, the importance of the public’s right to know how their government is wielding that power could not be greater.”
Unfortunately, this isn’t the first time that Santa Clara has found itself in hot water over public records. Last year, a county civil grand jury blasted the city for bucking rules related to responding to requests in a timely fashion.