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California Crying Wolf About Cost of Public Records?

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Though all appears to be quiet on the public records front in California after a proposed rollback tucked into a budget deal brought an outpouring of criticism and several political dances, the events of last week still haunt the Golden State’s citizens.

And rightly so. There are still many unanswered questions about why language weakening public records laws for California cities (by allowing them to “opt out” of records act compliance) was included as part of the budget process.

The budget bill itself cites that requiring local governments to follow those provisions (versus just giving them the option) has financial implications for the state. In 2011, the Commission on State Mandates decided that the state would reimburse local governments for certain public records costs. This decision came from a voter-approved initiative that required the state to repay local governments for state-mandated measures. Perhaps this is why the legislature thought that destabilizing local-records access could be a cost-saving measure, one that simply saved the state money by ensuring that fewer records-related reimbursements have to be paid.

Is the current law really costing the state money though?

It’s actually unclear at this point whether local governments are billing the state for public records costs and what costs they might be billing. Some articles suggest local governments charge the state for the staff time spent responding to requests, while others suggest local governments have yet to send a single bill to the state.

One thing that different sources agree on is that -- whether or not the state has received any bills -- it has not yet paid them. Part of the reason is that there appear to be no guidelines yet for what public records costs local governments are even eligible to reimbursed for by the state, though it looks like the Commission on State Mandates is working on addressing that.

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So where did the purported "tens of millions" of dollars in savings come from when the proposal to cut requirements was made?

This figure is attributed to the California's Legislative Analyst's Office, and at least one article states the figure is based on estimates for the costs of a similar reimbursement arrangement under the state's public meetings act.

Then comes this figure: that estimated $10-20 million in savings by eliminating public records requirements would only amount to 0.02 percent percent of the state's general-fund budget -- and the state has a $1.1 billion surplus.

This isn't the first time the state has looked at trying to find savings by cutting back transparency requirements for local governments. Last year, the state rolled back its public meetings requirements for local governments as part of the 2012 budget bill. The reasoning was, again, that the state was on the hook for costs related to a mandate: specifically for the posting of meeting agendas and minutes.

State officials say local governments have never stopped following state-mandated measures, even after they are no longer mandated. That was part of the defense for trying to scrap the public records requirements this year.

We understand that many state and local governments are looking to save money, but transparency programs don’t have to be expensive and they should never find their way to the chopping block without careful consideration of what their elimination might mean. Access to public records empowers journalists to uncover stories like the corruption in Bell, where elected officials were giving themselves unheard-of raises. It also leads to investigations like the one uncovering safety concerns caused by deficient materials used on the Bay Bridge.

There might be changes that could be made to eliminate the state's financial stake in the public records process, if that is all it is looking to do. In fact, the legislature is now looking at a proposed constitutional amendment that would shift the costs from the state to the local governments, while maintaining strong language for providing public records. The language for this amendment remains to be seen, of course, but the legislature has a chance to do something right here.It’s when times get tough that people need access to information more than ever. And as long as a state has determined to be involved in the way its local governments administer that access, then it is up to that state to ensure that the people’s right to know is preserved -- not damaged.

We hope the state legislature and executive branch will take this opportunity to continue to ensure strong measures for transparency and accountability at all levels of government, regardless of what financial ties are decided upon.

Photo by Flickr user Tax Credits