Proposition 42 in California is a major win for government transparency

InvisibleIn 2013, Gov. Jerry Brown of California faced a major problem: he had just approved a state budget that let local governments and jurisdictions off the hook for complying with public records and open meeting laws and requests. His reasoning included the number of complaints from localities that couldn’t get the state government to reimburse their costs when fielding public records requests. While not a complete and blatant slap in the face to public records law, the requirements for compliance under the new budget were certainly looser.

It didn’t take long for voters to catch wind of this, however, and the backlash began almost immediately. Everyone from bloggers to statewide newspapers published articles about the new public records requirements hidden away in the budget. In response, the state legislature put forth proposition 42, an amendment to the state constitution which would require local governments to comply with all public records and meetings attendance requests, with cost playing no role in compliance rates.

The state government had trouble keeping track of all requests and reimbursing local jurisdictions in a timely manner, which would sometimes lead those localities to withhold public records until they had received payment. Opponents say that this was placing a financial incentive on something local governments have a legal responsibility to do already.

The ballot itself had unanimous bipartisan support in the state legislature, and voters displayed agreement with their lawmakers when over 61% of them voted to approve the measure. One of the only groups to publicly urge a “no” vote, was the California Association of clerks and election officials. The organization claims that the California state government has a long history of trying to pass the buck and not pay for laws it has previously adopted, a trend it claims is only furthered by this new law.

While this may or may not be true, the Los Angeles times made their position clear in an article examining proposition 42 and government transparency. In short, the newspaper stated that such transparency laws were “no-brainers,” and had to be adopted in order to maintain the integrity of the state’s lawmaking bodies in the eyes of their constituents.

For anyone following public records news and trends lately, this vote will hardly come as a surprise. A number of other jurisdictions and states have recently faced lawsuits and challenges over public records transparency and accessibility. In many of these cases, the cost of obtaining the records seems to be a determining factor in how positively citizens view their public records accessibility. While rulings have varied, there seems to be a clear trend in favor of transparency, which is usually upheld by court judges.

That said, the implications of California’s new law have yet to be seen. While lawmakers and voters alike will generally tout this as a victory, there still remains the issue of how new costs will be handled by the local governments now operating under stricter public records and open meeting law. In addition to compliance with already existing laws, proposition 42 also stipulates that local government offices are more transparent about their open meeting schedules and their public records requesting processes, which now need to be clearly posted on-site.