Put some teeth in it

Those who have followed the Oroville Dam story know that the state Department of Water Resources has been anything but forthcoming in response to California Public Records Act requests from area media, stalling in many cases and blacking out large sections of the documents it does release.

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

The problem is that the CPRA has no teeth. There are no penalties for failure to comply with its provisions.

A bill recently passed in the state Assembly, AB 1479, by Assemblyman Rob Bonta, D-Alameda, would give public agencies 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 duplication fees 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 are complaining about the penalty’s cost, but of course there would be no cost if they obeyed the law.

The imbroglio now roiling Washington, D.C., reminds us once again of the importance of a free press. Now is a good time to strengthen the Public Records Act. We urge the state Senate to approve Assemblyman Bonta’s bill and send it to the governor, who has indicated he will sign it.