Public Records Act may get teeth

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(This story is from a California News Publishers Association release.)

On Tuesday, May 30, the California Assembly overwhelmingly approved a measure that would impose fines on agencies that knowingly violate the California Public Records Act.

AB 1479 by Assemblyman Rob Bonta (D-Alameda) would give courts the power to charge a government agency up to $5,000 for delaying or obstructing access to information. The bill also establishes a custodian of records to allow requesters to informally appeal to a designated agency employee if a request is denied.

The measure was voted off the Assembly floor with a 71-1 vote, with Assemblymember Jacqui Irwin (R-Thousand Oaks) voting no. Several other members stayed off the bill. Many of these assemblymembers received opposition letters from their local counties and cities.

Editorial support for AB 1479 highlights the frustration of journalists and members of the public who regularly face roadblocks to access, despite clear law that presumes disclosure of information. But with AB 1479’s proposed enforcement mechanism, reporter and public complaints can be rectified.

By allowing a judge to determine that an agency acted wrongly, and to punish it for doing so, AB 1479 encourages compliance with the act. Moreover, assessed fines would signal to the public that an agency had fallen down on its duty to comply with the CPRA. All this goes toward promoting a culture of transparency, where agency employees and lawyers embrace the presumption of openness that the people and the Legislature have repeatedly said is to be the status quo.

AB 1479 will likely be heard in the Senate Judiciary Committee this month before the Legislature recesses for summer break.

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