Editorial: Records act lets legislators hide from the public
Let the sun shine on … the California Legislature.
Sunday marked the beginning of this year’s Sunshine Week, designated by the American Society of Newspaper Editors to promote open government.
State and local government agencies are bound by the California Public Records Act to release a variety of information pertaining to public business.
According to the CPRA: ” ‘Public records’ includes any writing containing information relating to the conduct of the public’s business prepared, owned, used or retained by any state or local agency regardless of physical form or characteristics.”
Within stated guidelines, the public has the right to demand most records of government bodies. Some records are off-limits, such as those pertaining to pending litigation involving a public agency, or personnel, medical or similar files that, if released, would constitute invasion of personal privacy.
Our state Legislature, though, saw fit in 1975 to enact its own set of public records called the Legislative Open Records Act. The LORA pertains only to the Legislature, not to any other state agency.
According to an analysis by the Assembly Committee on Governmental Organization, the LORA was enacted to “tailor its provisions to address the situations and issues that occur in the Legislature rather than executive branch agencies.”
And protect its own.
How’s that for transparency?
The LORA, though related in most aspects to the CPRA (which has its own extensive list of prohibited information), goes further by exempting citizens from obtaining such information as communications from private citizens, correspondence between legislators and their staff, records of complaints to or investigations conducted by the Legislature, and records maintained by the majority and minority caucuses and their consultants.
The LORA also thwarts citizens from figuring out how legislators use public money to travel by car: The public cannot obtain records “pertaining to the name and location of facilities that provide members’ vehicle fuel and various telephone and telegraph records.” Total charges, though, may be obtained.
And here’s the best one: The Legislature doesn’t have to disclose its business “when on the facts of the particular case the public interest served by not disclosing the record clearly outweighs the public interest served by the disclosure.”
That same provision also is in the California Public Records Act. Legislators and other public officials could drive a truck through that particular loophole – and often do.
Public information is just that: public. State politicians hiding from public scrutiny must be made to toe the line. Contact your representatives and demand the Legislature abolish the LORA and force them to conduct business out in the open.