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As part of their budget negotiations, Brown and company had considered legislation that would have significantly reduced funds that the state provides to cities and counties to offset the cost of fulfilling public records requests.
In theory, the California Public Records Act upholds the “fundamental and necessary right of every person in this state” to examine documents and data that public officials maintain on our behalf.
By making taxpayers fight for documents and data that should be easily accessible, government agencies send the message that taxpayers can’t actually be trusted with the information.
Last year, a national study of state laws and practices that are supposed to promote transparency and curb corruption gave California a near-failing grade when it came to a key indicator of openness: public access to information. California had plenty of dubious company: the State Integrity project gave failing grades to nearly half of the states when it came to open records, but among the five states rated highest overall by the study, California ranked lowest in this crucial area. In 2008, Pennsylvania bolstered its public-records law with language that “presumed” government records were open unless the records fell under a specific exemption. In practice, Pennsylvania’s open-records law has been far from perfect, but it tied for second place in State Integrity’s rankings of public access to information.
California is the birthplace of Code for America, a nonprofit that embeds computer programming fellows in local government agencies and helps them solve problems with software code. Sure, there are specific exemptions to the CPRA that make sense — disclosing information that would make the state vulnerable to attack, for example, is a bad idea — but there are broad categories of public information that should be more, well, public. Joel Hoffmann is an investigative reporter for Voice of San Diego, focusing on county government, the San Diego Unified School District and the Unified Port of San Diego.

We're striving for the best possible discussion and may delete comments using our editorial judgment. This entry was posted in Government, News, Share and tagged California, california public records act, Code for America, data, Jerry Brown, Legislature, Open Government, State Integrity project. I completely agree and appreciate the last suggestion Joel mentioned, which is to fix a statewide problem by starting locally. As beneficiaries of the PRA laws, news organizations are in a unique position to not only know where the most pain is, but also to be able to lead an organized effort to make change where the pain is. Journalists who want to make an impact and advocate for an issue can start right here, with this issue, which will better the quality of their own journalism and will increase access to records for their readers. This is a huge topic & I'm appreciative of Joel's research into this and preliminary ideas on how we can make government more open.
The San Diego History Center is funded in part by the City of San Diego Commission for Arts and Culture and by the County of San Diego. Jerry Brown and the California Legislature nearly gutted the California Public Records Act under the guise of saving taxpayer money. But they abruptly changed course after critics blasted them for trying to undermine the public’s right to know.
Officials are supposed to “promptly” provide access to information when taxpayers make a reasonable and specific request, but delays are common and fees can be burdensome and excessive.

It’s also a warning: Government agencies better be able to defend their decision to withhold information in civil court. It is also home to some of the world’s biggest and most sophisticated technology companies. State and local agencies should engage civic-minded technologists and open-government advocates about how best to convert and publish information in machine-readable form before citizens ask for it.
Next step: a vast library of digital documents that can easily be searched and converted into data. Adding a presumption of openness to the legal documents that govern cities and counties would make it binding on all agencies, but a mayoral executive order could provide good momentum. It costs money, time and expertise to make these changes, and as major stakeholders, unified news organizations are in the best position to lead a consistent, unified effort to get that started. Included are court case files, minutes of the Board of Supervisors, local ordinances, Coroner’s inquest reports, probate records, tax lists, school reports, deed records, marriage licenses and mining records. The History Center is a member of the Balboa Park Cultural Partnership and the San Diego Museum Council.

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