Open for business

“The people have a right to access information concerning the conduct of the people’s business.” Who could quarrel with that simple maxim?

Well, last year Republican lawmakers in the state Assembly did so, when they refused to allow Senate Constitutional Amendment 7, also known as the Sunshine Amendment, to be heard in committee, effectively killing it.

If passed, the amendment, which was sponsored by the California Newspaper Publishers Association and the California First Amendment Coalition, would have given California one of the most vigorous open-meetings and public-records laws in the nation.

The good news is that the proposed amendment is making another run, as SCA 1, and this time has the backing of both the state Attorney General’s Office and the League of California Cities. The only important group yet to weigh in on it is the California State Association of Counties.

To counter opponents’ fears that the amendment would supercede existing state statutes that allow government agencies to withhold public records and enter into closed meetings under certain circumstances, the new amendment specifically states that it does not do so. But it does mandate that courts construe such statutes broadly in favor of public access and narrowly in denying it. And it requires that future statutes limiting access be rigidly justified. If passed in the Legislature by June 27, it will be on the June 2004 ballot, where it will need to be passed by two-thirds of the voters to become law.

California already has two well-meaning and largely effective laws dealing with open meetings and public records, but too often government agencies find ways to ignore them and keep their doings secret. But, in a democracy, public officials and agencies work for the people and conduct the people’s business, and that business should be available to the public. By engraving the right of access in the state Consitution, SCA 1 would go a long way toward fostering openness and transparency.