For the record

Support bill that gives teeth to law on public documents

When it comes to Oroville Dam, the state Department of Water Resources has been anything but forthcoming in response to California Public Records Act requests. Chico-based advocacy nonprofit AquAlliance sued DWR for documentation relating to asbestos that may have been uncovered during a break in the main spillway (see “Dam records sought,” Downstroke, June 15). Meanwhile, DWR has stymied area media, stalling in many cases and blacking out large sections of documents the agency does release.

The CPRA holds that government documents belong to the people and must be surrendered promptly when requested. However, journalists long have known that public agencies are slow to respond and reluctant to release documents that may be embarrassing.

Problem is, the CPRA has no teeth. There are no penalties for failing to comply with its provisions.

A bill recently passed in the Assembly, AB 1479, would give public entities an incentive to obey the law. It would allow a judge to levy a penalty of up to $5,000 against any agency that flagrantly violates the CPRA by withholding records, unreasonably delaying their release, charging excessive fees for duplication or simply acting in bad faith.

The bill has the support of the ACLU, First Amendment groups and newspapers up and down the state. Some cities and counties complain about the penalty’s cost, but of course there would be no cost if they obeyed the law.

The imbroglio in D.C. reminds us repeatedly of the importance of a free press. Apropos of this, the Trump White House got sued last Thursday (June 22) for allegedly violating the Presidential Records Act with widespread use of encrypted internal communications, thereby preventing a meaningful archive for the public.

The California Senate should pass AB 1479, and the governor should sign it. Now is a good time to strengthen the Public Records Act.