Let the sun shine

For information on the current status of SCA 7, contact Sen. John Burton at www.sen.ca.gov/burton .

Find out more: It’s no secret that the California Public Records Act has not stopped secrecy in government.

Take the example of former Insurance Commissioner Chuck Quackenbush. Not even a state senator armed with the Act was able to obtain “public” Department of Insurance records regarding Quackenbush’s regulation of insurance companies after the Loma Prieta earthquake. In the end, it was a “leak” from inside the department—not the Public Records Act—that produced the evidence that proved wrongdoing and forced Quackenbush to resign.

Why doesn’t the Public Records Act do what it’s supposed to, i.e. protect the public’s right to access information from state and local agencies? Because a series of court decisions, combined with loopholes and exemptions approved administratively, have weakened the Act substantially over the years.

A 1998 legislative task force report called “KEEP OUT: The Failure of the California Public Records Act” stated that the law had been “interpreted, reinterpreted and fiddled with to the point that it has become of little appreciable value to the public.” In fact, the California Supreme Court itself has added exceptions to the Act that now allow government leaders to withhold documents—in the name of protecting privacy—that would otherwise reveal what groups or individuals have influenced the leaders in the making of key decisions.

Now state Senate President Pro Tempore John Burton, (D-San Francisco) has proposed a constitutional amendment that would fix the loopholes and better ensure open government. Sponsored by the California Newspaper Publishers Association and the California First Amendment Coalition (which dubbed this the “most important” public policy battle ever waged by these groups), the amendment, SCA 7, would raise the people’s right to know beyond the level of California statute and actually place it into the constitution. Basically, the amendment would shift the responsibility to justify exceptions to the Act onto government agencies regarding why certain information shouldn’t be made public.

Importantly, SCA 7 was written with great respect for the citizen’s right to privacy. Information the government collects on us as individuals—from medical records to tax forms—are not open now and would not be open under a new and improved public records law. However, the law would not allow government officials to use concerns over privacy to hide behind the law and keep ill-considered, embarrassing or even illegal doings from the public.

To be entered into the constitution, SCA 7 must be approved by both houses of the Legislature by a two-thirds margin. Only then will it be permitted to move on to a statewide vote and, hopefully, become law. Open access to information concerning the people’s business is the basic right of every person in this state. Let’s get SCA 7 passed, approved by the voters and set into the constitution. It’s time to make our right-to-know a certainty.