SAN DIEGO — Gov. Jerry Brown and the Legislature had just sealed a $96.3 billion state budget last year when an outcry erupted over a provision that allowed local governments to deny requests for public documents because the state wouldn’t reimburse them.
They restored funding and now support a ballot measure that aims to make sure the episode is never repeated.
Proposition 42 would amend the state constitution to require cities, counties, school districts and other local agencies to comply with state laws to make documents available and open their meetings to the public. They also would be required to cover the costs for doing so.
The June 3 ballot measure is backed by unusual bedfellows, including the state Democratic and Republican parties, taxpayer advocates and labor unions. The state Assembly voted 78-0 and Senate voted 37-0 to qualify it for a statewide vote.
In an editorial, The Sacramento Bee supported the measure: “Transparency is not optional. It is an absolutely essential basic service, like public safety, and must be factored into a city’s bottom line.”
Organized opposition is thin.
There is no committee to campaign or raise money against the measure. Gary Wesley, a Mountain View attorney, was the only one to submit an opposing argument for the secretary of state’s voter guide and he will not even say how he will vote. He just wants some debate.
“I just threw an argument in to make sure there was something,” said Wesley, 61, who predicts the measure will pass overwhelmingly.
Wesley has authored dozens of ballot arguments since 1978 when it appeared no one else would. He suggests the state should continue reimbursing the costs for local governments, as it does with other mandates.
The California Association of Clerks and Election Officials urges a “no” vote even though it is not actively campaigning against the measure, casting it as part of a long history of the state refusing to pay for laws it adopts. They say it’s about money, not transparency.
“Proposition 42 would do nothing more than make it more difficult for local governments to provide the public with the level of service quality that they demand and deserve,” the group wrote in a position paper.
The League of California Cities takes no position but worries about costs and believes the state is not adhering to the same standards it is requiring of local governments, said Dan Carrigg, the group’s legislative director. He pointed to a 2004 constitutional amendment promoting access to public records that exempted the Legislature.
The governor sparked muted protests after proposing in January 2013 that requirements be loosened for local governments to comply with two transparency laws: the California Public Records Act of 1968, which entitles the public to view documents such as contracts, official calendars, email correspondence and salaries; and the Ralph M. Brown Act of 1953, which requires local government bodies to meet in public and give adequate notice.
The controversy exploded five months later, with newspaper editorial writers and others warning that it was an invitation for local governments to run amok. One often-cited example: The Los Angeles Times used the public records act to reveal that the Los Angeles suburb of Bell paid enormous salaries to top officials.
“We were all surprised,” said Sen. Mark Leno, a San Francisco Democrat, characterizing lawmakers’ reaction to the uproar. “We realized we needed to fix the problem.”
State funding was restored for the year, and Leno authored legislation to ask voters to make local governments pay in the future.
The nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office says it could cost local governments tens of millions of dollars annually to comply with the California Public Records Act. The true cost is unknown because the Commission on State Mandates did not rule until 2011 that costs should be reimbursed and has not said how much.
Jim Ewert, general counsel of the California Newspaper Publishers Association, says the estimate was “pulled out of thin air.”
Local governments made $48.3 million in reimbursement claims to the state to comply with the open-meetings law from 2009 to 2012. Critics say some agencies pad expenses.
The Yes on 42 campaign raised $159,000 by the end of April from donors that include the California Association of Realtors and California Professional Firefighters union. Despite the lack of opposition, it’s a paltry amount for a statewide campaign and proponents are relying on newspaper editorials to win over voters.
“Voters, when they’re confused by a ballot measure, typically vote no,” said Brian Brokaw, a campaign spokesman. “We’re really just trying to educate the electorate in as short a time as possible.”