Editorial: California Public Records Act needs more muscle

In her investigation of Fresno Unified School District’s no-bid construction contracts that are the subject of a federal grand jury inquiry, The Bee’s Mackenzie Mays received more than 350 pages of emails exchanged between district officials and Harris Construction.

Those emails showed that Harris executives and district officials discussed no-bid projects long before the school board approved them. The messages – obtained by The Bee under California’s Public Records Act – also revealed that the firm had a chummy relationship with the district.

But there remains much that the public doesn’t know about the process that led to Harris receiving “lease-leaseback” contracts valued at nearly $115 million in taxpayer funding.

That’s because when Fresno Unified finally released the emails – 90 days after Mays requested them Dec. 1, 2015 – the district withheld some of those records, citing several exemptions, including student privacy and pending litigation. The district also did not disclose how many records were withheld. It might have been just a few. Or it might have been thousands. Only the district and its lawyers know.

That would change under Assembly Bill 1707, which is scheduled for hearing Tuesday in the Assembly Judiciary Committee. Assemblyman Eric Linder, R-Corona, introduced the legislation with a goal of strengthening the California Public Records Act to require agencies that hold back records to provide more information as to why they are claiming exemptions.

Linder authored the bill after being contacted by a constituent who complained about the roadblocks faced after filing a public-records request, San Diego Union-Tribune columnist Steve Greenhut wrote Feb. 1.

Under current law, as Mays experienced with Fresno Unified, agencies don’t have to explain the exemptions and they don’t have to identify the documents that they keep from public view.

“You have to trust the agency and believe they are acting in good faith,” Linder told Greenhut. “(The bill) is a small step toward making government a little more transparent.”

It would be more than a small step, actually. As the law is written, the only recourse a news organization – or a citizen – has to ensure that a public agency isn’t hiding vital documents is a legal challenge. And public officials know all too well that their taxpayer-funded budgets give them a big leg up over the public in sustaining lengthy and expensive legal battles.

Linder’s bill, says the California Newspaper Publishers Association, “targets a common problem for a requester who wants to analyze whether the exemption is properly asserted and whether nondisclosure is narrowly tailored.”

In addition, CNPA cited Fresno Unified’s withholding of information about the documents it kept secret in urging that the bill’s adoption: “With AB 1707 in place, the law would more clearly direct the school district and agencies across the state to provide this vital information.”

Linder, a small-business owner, has crusaded for lowering taxes and eliminating government waste since his election to the Assembly in 2012. We applaud that he is now championing government transparency and reminding public officials in California that they work for the taxpayers and shouldn’t be hiding information that the public has every right to see.

This bill deserves bipartisan support, passage through the Assembly and Senate, and Gov. Jerry Brown’s signature.