Broken Records Act

New law could make it easier for you to find out where the bodies are buried

Art by Bob AulLast fall, the Anaheim-based community group Los Amigos quietly launched "Project Transparency," a countywide survey of the top salaries paid to city government and school employees. But the real purpose behind the project wasn't to investigate the incomes of highly paid public employees. It was to test the power of the California Public Records Act (CPRA), which requires state and local governments to open their records to anyone with the energy to put a request in writing.

After mailing certified letters to every city hall and school district between Seal Beach and San Juan Capistrano, Los Amigos graded the agencies on how quickly and thoroughly they responded. The city of San Juan Capistrano and the Santa Ana School District responded immediately, earning an A for swift compliance with the law. But as Project Transparency progressed, some cities, including Santa Ana, which received a C, forwarded Los Amigos' requests to the wrong department, which then wrote back to claim it didn't have any information about the requested records. Santa Ana finally gave Los Amigos the salary information it had asked for after the group wrote a second letter to the city, demanding that the original request be forwarded to the appropriate department.

Santa Ana was positively forthcoming compared to Huntington Beach, which earned an F on the Los Amigos report card. Ten months after Project Transparency began, Huntington Beach still hasn't even responded to Los Amigos' public-records act request.

The city's public-information office also failed to respond to the Weekly's request for an interview regarding this story.

In a nutshell, Project Transparency revealed that, nearly 30 years after the California Public Records Act became law, many cities and government agencies continue to ignore legitimate requests for access to records, or, more often, they simply throw up obstacles to the timely release of public information.

That may soon change, however, thanks to a proposed law that sailed through the California Legislature earlier this month and now awaits a signature from Governor Gray Davis. Davis has until Oct. 10 to sign Senate Bill 48, a little-publicized piece of legislation that proposes to make the CPRA work as it was intended.

Introduced by state Senator Byron Sher (D-Palo Alto) last year, SB 48 proposes to do at least three things to broaden records access. First, it would impose a $100 fine for each day a government agency in California ignores a request once the initial 10-day grace period has expired. It would also require agencies to provide a written justification for each denial. Most important, it would create an appeal process administered by the attorney general's office (currently, the only recourse to a denial is to sue the agency in court).

If it receives Davis' signature, SB 48 will go into effect July 1, 2000.

"If the governor signs it, all hell will break loose," said Los Amigos activist Galal Kernahan. "That would be just wonderful."

For more information on how to file your own California Public Records Act request, visit the California First Amendment Coalition Web site at www.cfac.org.
 
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