Open-government advocates cheer passage of 2 FOI laws

Monday, October 9, 2000

Advocates of open government in California celebrated the successful
passage of two freedom-of-information laws this past session but were troubled
that the governor vetoed another bill that would have instituted
attorney-general review of denial of records requests.

“We’re very disappointed,” said Tom Newton, general counsel for the
California Newspaper Publishers Association. “This would have created a record
of opinions on public records and public meetings in California.”

The bill would have enabled citizens to seek a second opinion on
matters of open records and open governments. Presently, those dissatisfied
with an agency’s decision on such issues have to take the case to court.

“The only option is to sue them,” Newton said. “And most citizens
don’t do that. And even newspapers can’t afford to file lawsuits every

But in the closing weeks of the 2000 General Assembly, Gov. Gray Davis
did sign two key FOI bills. Press advocates say that’s been a typical voting
pattern by the governor on bills with First Amendment implications, noting that
Davis recently signed a bill strengthening the state shield law
but vetoed a media-access-to-prisoners bill.

One new law requires student government bodies of any school in the
California State University system to post agendas of regular meetings at least
72 hours in advance, open their meetings to the public and allow audience
members to address the group.

The law allows the student governments to close meetings only to
discuss property negotiations, pending litigation and personnel issues. But any
action must be held in open session.

Assemblywoman Gloria Romero, the sponsor of the bill, said the new law
opens to the public a government body that is traditionally closed.

The governor also signed into law the Electronic Access to Records
Act, which requires state agencies to provide requested records in the form in
which they are used. Press advocates said the measure would prevent officials
from flooding requesters with paper when the information could be sent via
e-mail or put on a computer disk.

Jane Kirtley, a professor at the University of Minnesota’s School of
Journalism and Mass Communication, said officials might relent to the release
of the records but not the technology.

Kirtley said similar laws in other states usually require the agencies
to provide the records in the form requested by the citizen. But she said this
measure should work because citizens would likely get the information in a form
that is easy to use.

Newton said Gray vetoed a similar bill last year, citing fears of a
possible computer crisis with the Y2K bug. With those concerns passed, Gray
signed the new bill into law last session.

“It’s a good victory for us when you take it into consideration with
some of the vetoes,” Newton said. “It’s good to have at least a few new

But it’s the review bill that most press advocates hoped would secure
the governor’s signature.

Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for
Freedom of the Press, said the added step of review might have bolstered
positive responses to records requests.

“My first response is, what does Gray Davis have against the public
knowing what state government is up to?” Dalglish said. “It seems like he
doesn’t like public scrutiny.”

Dalglish said the bill mirrors efforts in a variety of other states
where attorney generals have been charged with handling appeals under the
states’ freedom-of-information laws. Other states, including New York,
Connecticut and Florida, have special agencies designed to handle FOI

Dalglish said she doesn’t know what method is most effective in
opening government to the public “but we’re all in favor of legislation to make
it easier to get public records.”

But Davis contends the bill would have created more headaches and
costs for state government officials rather than improved access to public

“While proponents of this bill contend that a weakness of the Public
Records Act is the lack of recourse when state agencies refuse to comply, this
bill does not address that issue,” Davis said in his veto statement. “Instead
the bill sets up a bureaucratic reporting mechanism, involving the preparation,
posting and mailing of [attorney general] opinions on the merits of a state
agency’s decision to withhold requested information.”

Davis said that he has directed the secretary of state’s office to
review the performance of all state agencies’ performance in responding to
records requests.

But Newton disagrees with Davis’ contention that this appeals process
would stress state budgets by as much as $1 million. Adding review, he said,
would likely prevent the state from facing expensive lawsuits over public
records and public meetings.

“One or two lawsuits can rack up that kind of cost,” he

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