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Another access fiasco

It’s starting to feel as though we can’t even catch our breath before there’s yet another records access issue raising its head somewhere.

This time it’s California’s turn, and California genealogists are asking the broader community for help.

Here’s the problem:

The California Legislature has a habit of attaching unrelated riders — called bill trailers — to the state budget. These riders don’t have a thing to do with the subject matter of the budget, but they usually don’t have enough general support to get moved through the legislative process on their own. By attaching them to the budget, the supporters hope to get them through without anybody noticing — and without the public hearings and careful consideration that a separate piece of legislation requires.

One of the riders attached to the budget last week would allow California local agencies — usually defined as cities, counties, fire districts, school districts and other local authorities — to avoid many of the requirements of existing laws mandating public access to government information.

If this rider — which is now Section 4 of Assembly Bill 76 — is not line-item-vetoed by the Governor, things that are now required of local agencies will become optional. Among them:

     • Local agencies will no longer be required by law to respond to requests for government documents within specific time frames.

     • Local agencies will no longer be obligated to provide assistance to someone who wants a public document but isn’t sure exactly what document has the answer to the question.

     • Local agencies will no longer have to provide a written reason why they refuse access to a specific document requested by a member of the public.

Under the bill, the only thing cities and counties and other local agencies will have to do to get out from under current records access laws is announce, once a year, that they’re choosing to make the requirements optional.

Ugh.

Now it’s not entirely clear that this bill — if signed by the Governor — would pass muster under the California Constitution. Article I, section 3, of the California Constitution provides, in part:

SEC. 3. (a) The people have the right to instruct their representatives, petition government for redress of grievances, and assemble freely to consult for the common good.

(b)(1) The people have the right of access to information concerning the conduct of the people’s business, and, therefore, the meetings of public bodies and the writings of public officials and agencies shall be open to public scrutiny.

(2) A statute, court rule, or other authority, including those in effect on the effective date of this subdivision, shall be broadly construed if it furthers the people’s right of access, and narrowly construed if it limits the right of access. A statute, court rule, or other authority adopted after the effective date of this subdivision that limits the right of access shall be adopted with findings demonstrating the interest protected by the limitation and the need for protecting that interest.1

But the California genealogical community would like our help to try to avoid the need for constitutional litigation over our access to vital records and other government documents held in the custody and control of local agencies that we rely on every day for our research.

So… let’s all of us — especially those with California roots — spare some time and let California’s Governor know just how bad an idea this is.

It won’t be as easy as it could be — California Governor Edmund G. (“Jerry”) Brown Jr. doesn’t accept email to an email address, only input via a contact form on his website: http://gov.ca.gov/m_contact.php. Or you can fax or call the office — the contact page has the fax and office number as well. Or you can email Brown’s legislative director, Gareth Elliott, at gareth.elliott@gov.ca.gov.

As always, our task is to be polite educators: Section 4 of Assembly Bill No. 76 is bad law because it makes public access to records important to us an option rather than the right we are guaranteed under the California Constitution. It increases the likelihood of litigation, wiping out any savings the local agencies might achieve by making records access requirements optional. It undermines public confidence in government. And so it should be line-item-vetoed or, if that’s not possible the whole bill vetoed and sent back to be redone.

Those with California connections should mention them. My own family has lots of branches that headed west and settled in California, and this bill has the potential to greatly complicate my efforts to research those lines. I listed the counties and cities where my people’s records can be found in my comments.

Won’t you join me in supporting the right of our California colleagues — and that of all of us with California roots — to keep public records as accessible as they can be?


 
SOURCES

  1. California Constitution, Article I, section 3; California Legislative Information (http://leginfo.legislature.ca.gov/ : accessed 18 Jun 2013).
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