EDITORIAL: Tell Jerry Brown to veto attack on Public Records Act

The unbridled arrogance of government is on full display, here in California and across our great land. In the name of security and the war on terror, the federal government is prying ever deeper into the lives of law-abiding Americans, eroding civil liberties and owning up to the deeds only after a whistle-blower calls them to the public's attention.

Meanwhile, in California, a Legislature controlled by a Democrat supermajority and in concert with Gov. Jerry Brown, wants citizens to know as little as possible about the workings of local government.

On Friday, lawmakers approved a pair of budget trailer bills (SB 71 and AB 76) that would free local governments of the obligation to comply with certain aspects of the California Public Records Act. The bills zipped through the Legislature with little or no committee review. Lawmakers clearly wanted to rubber stamp potentially embarrassing legislation under cover from prying eyes.

The supposed justification for the bills is to free the state of the obligation to pay local governments for complying with state open records mandates. Under Proposition 1A of 2004, the state must either suspend the mandates or reimburse local governments for complying.

That's the ostensible reason. The real reason is that Gov. Brown and legislative leaders have a weak commitment to transparent governance. Collectively, they've received scrutiny over pay raises, use of state funds, the Bay Bridge debacle and other embarrassments. Collectively, they're the foundation of a Secrecy Lobby that wants to keep Californians in the dark.

Only one Democrat -- Sen. Leland Yee of San Francisco -- had the courage to buck the party line and and join Republicans in voting no. Said Yee: "It's not about saving money. It's all about curtailing an open, transparent government that can be held accountable."

If these bills become law, local governments and their representatives say they will continue to grant open records requests. Perhaps many would, but if they didn't, the public would have little legal recourse if a city or county decided to keep public documents secret.

In the hands of reporters and ordinary citizens, the California Public Records Act is the hammer that makes public agencies reveal the salaries and pensions of government workers and officials. The Act forces the disclosure of legal fees, project overruns and the recordings of 911 calls. Take away that hammer, and the wall around government becomes thicker and taller.

This is just the latest assault on sunshine. Last year, to avoid paying reimbursements, lawmakers and the governor suspended notice mandates for public meetings. This year, lawmakers considered imposing a $10-per-file fee on the public to look at court records. Fortunately, a conference committee killed that bill.

Public pressure can make a difference again. Urge the governor to reject SB 71 and AB 76 by contacting him at the governor's contact page.