Sunshine Week: 6 proposed laws that could impact the public’s right to know
The California Capitol in Sacramento is shown on Jan. 21, 2006. (Franco Folini/Flickr)

Sunshine Week: 6 proposed laws that could impact the public’s right to know

When government operates in the shadows, withholding records or censoring them beyond comprehension, it’s the public who pays.

That’s why inewsource is participating in Sunshine Week, which began Sunday. It’s an annual nationwide celebration that highlights open government and access to public information. This year state lawmakers have proposed legislation that could weaken or strengthen the California Public Records Act, which requires government records to be available to the public upon request, unless otherwise exempted by law.

The California Public Records Act defends the public’s right to open government and access to government documents. This year, as in the past, state legislators have introduced laws that could strengthen or weaken that right.

The California News Publishers Association, which works to protect the mutual interests of the state’s newspapers, has identified 37 pieces of legislation that could potentially impact the public’s ability to obtain government information and records. Here are six:

AB 289 – Public records referee

This bill was introduced by Assembly members Vince Fong, R-Bakersfield, and Lorena Gonzalez, D-San Diego. If signed into law, it would create a position in the state Auditor’s Office to review denied public records requests and, if warranted, order the agency to comply. The position would act as a referee of sorts.

Gonzalez told inewsource it’s easy for an agency to deny a public records request, and the only recourse that person has, whether it’s a reporter or a member of the public, is to go to court.

Having an independent referee to come in and settle these disputes would give a lot of confidence to the requester that they’re getting an honest answer, she said.

“I’ve seen the frustration of so much of our media and so much of the public in trying to get information,” Gonzalez said. “And if you think that an individual at some agency is making this determination and the only recourse is going to court, that just becomes a stumbling block.

“If we really do care about the sunshine of a public records act request, then there has to be a more tenable way to ensure that everybody is making the same type of determination.”
The Assembly passed the bill on a vote of 78-0. It’s now in the Senate.

AB 1599 – Officers accused of sexual assault

If a police officer is accused of sexual assault and resigns before the investigation concludes, the public currently has no right to the information surrounding the case. This bill was inspired by the inability of Central Coast newspapers and media outlets to obtain information about an alleged sexual assault case involving a Paso Robles police officer.

AB 1599 would close this loophole and make officer-involved sexual assault investigation reports eligible for release if the officer resigns before the investigation ends, the bill’s sponsor, Assemblyman Jordan Cunningham, R-San Luis Obispo, said in a news release.

“California’s peace officers have a very difficult job. As a former prosecutor, I know that the vast majority of them do their job with dignity and honor,” Cunningham said. “However, sunshine is the best disinfectant and the only way to restore trust. Bad actors should not be able to exploit a loophole to evade responsibility.”

The Assembly passed the bill on a vote of 63-2. It’s now in the Senate.

AB 2151 – 72-hour deadline

This piece of legislation, sponsored by Gonzalez and Assemblyman James Gallagher, R-Yuba City, would require local governments to post campaign filings to their websites within 72 hours of the filing deadline.

This comes down to transparency, Gonzalez said. People shouldn’t have to go to a remote office to “fiddle around,” she said, during specific hours to request and pay for information about who is funding a particular campaign.

“By no means does a campaign contribution mean anything more than somebody decided to give a campaign contribution. But it gives you a piece of the story,” she said.

Gonzalez is running for re-election in November and is already raising money for her 2022 campaign to become secretary of state — California’s chief election officer.

To rebuild the public’s trust in government, she said, there needs to be more transparency when it comes to campaign finances.

The Assembly has yet to vote on the bill.

AB 2093 – Email retention period

State law allows public agencies to adopt their own regulations for making records accessible and allows them to destroy records within two years if they are no longer needed.

Assemblyman Todd Gloria, a San Diego Democrat who is running for mayor, is taking another shot at a public records bill Gov. Gavin Newsom vetoed last year. It would mandate all state public agencies retain emails for at least two years.

It stems from the Voice of San Diego’s reporting in 2018 that found some cities were quick to delete their emails under the two-year minimum.

“I continue to believe the public has a right to access and examine government documents, and that includes emails,” Gloria said in a news release announcing the bill. “The State should absolutely set a sensible, statewide email record retention standard for public agencies.

Emails are of equal relevance to paper records and they are critical to conducting the public’s business.”

Nothing has changed in the bill since the veto, said Nick Serrano, a Gloria spokesman. But Gloria is working with Newsom and others who opposed it, to revise the bill as it moves through the Legislature, Serrano said.

“There’s a need for transparency and we are open to discussions about how to balance that need with concerns about costs,” Serrano said in an email.

The Assembly has yet to vote on the bill.

AB 2372 – Records from medical examiners and coroners

Records from medical examiners and coroners are public under California law, but a bill by Assemblywoman Jacqui Irwin, D-Thousand Oaks would attempt to change that.

AB 2372 expresses the Legislature’s intent to make autopsy records confidential. Irwin’s office did not respond to a request from inewsource for comment, but in a news release last month she said it’s about protecting families.

“The public should not have access to the intimate and often very personal details found within an autopsy and in a medical examiner’s records,” Irwin said. “This information can be very traumatizing for the surviving family members of a crime victim. The families of the Borderline shooting victims should not have to endure repeated trauma caused by conspiracy theorists and others who could have access to these highly personal reports.”

She was referring to the Borderline Bar shooting where 12 people were killed. It occurred in her Ventura County district.

David Snyder, executive director of the nonprofit First Amendment Coalition, said it’s “a bad idea and contrary to the public interest.”

“Medical examiners’ reports are central to reporting on deaths that are considered newsworthy. They have a ton of key information to understand why, how and when people die,” Snyder told inewsource.

“This would chip away at the public’s right to know and government transparency,” he added.
There may be privacy related concerns or other sensitive information, but that can be worked
out with limited redactions, Snyder said.

“It’s very shortsighted of the Legislature to make these records secret,” he said.
The Assembly has yet to vote on this bill.

AB 2569 – John and Jane Doe

Assemblyman Timothy Grayson, D-Concord, introduced a bill to protect the identity of victims who are minors. It would require police to conceal the name and address of an alleged victim under the age of 18, replacing the name with a pseudonym such as John or Jane Doe.

Grayson’s office did not respond to an inewsource request for comment. Snyder said the bill attempts to solve a problem that doesn’t exist.

Most publications already have a policy to not publish the names of victims in these cases, he said.

The Assembly has yet to vote on the bill.

shadow-ornament

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About Cody Dulaney:

Cody Dulaney
Cody Dulaney is an investigative reporter at inewsource. To contact him with tips, suggestions or corrections, please email codydulaney [at] inewsource [dot] org.