More records access trouble: California

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 This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

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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21 Responses to More records access trouble: California

  1. Toni says:

    It seems that EVERY day there is a new alert that some government body somewhere is taking something away from us. Laws that were on the books for years are now being stricken. Our lawmakers have nothing better to do than read old laws and change them? Have they never heard the old saying, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!” I’m glad I’m old. I’m close to working myself into a heart attack quite often. But “they” will chip away and chip away at everything in “the land of the free and the home of the brave” and the younger generation won’t know what they missed so it will only get worse as time passes because no one will oppose The Gob’mnt.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Looks like the argument here is money, Toni — the cost of complying with the records laws. Seems to me the cost of defending lawsuits will be a lot higher!

    • Patricia says:

      Toni, you said it very well!! I completely agree that we should have access to vital records at every avenue and it is not just about seeking knowledge for historical purposes. There are genetic issues that require genealogical research and sealing records does not serve the greater good to society.

  2. Thanks for the information. I sent in my disapproval comment to Gov. Brown. We will see how it goes.

  3. Thank you for alerting everyone! Although I have no California connections, it seems that the time may be coming for another public outcry. I suppose that a good democracy requires constant public vigilance. I’m glad that technology makes this vigilance easier. At least Jerry Brown has a contact form on his website.

  4. Cyndy Bray says:

    Thanks for the information. I did not know this was happening. Called the Governors office and gave them a piece of my mind. Was not rude, as the person I was talking to is not a legislator. Might have been rude otherwise. I would like to know how to outlaw riders.
    thanks again for the heads up
    Cyndy

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Thanks for speaking out, Cyndy! With luck, the Governor will get The Word, in capital letters, on this issue.

  5. Mary Roddy says:

    Hi Judy, Thanks for bringing this to our attention. I just messaged the Governor’s office to veto this section and then posted on my facebook page a plea asking my contacts to do the same.
    Thanks
    Mary

  6. Debi Austen says:

    Thank you so much for the information. I’m a 5th generation Californian so almost all of my research so far has been in that state. Next virtual stop is the Governor’s office.

  7. Karen S says:

    I caught just enough of the news story last night to know something was up, but then promptly forgot to research it. Thanks for the information! I contacted Gov. Brown as well.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Thanks, Karen! The Legislature can’t seem to get its act together to change this, so appealing to the Governor is a priority!

  8. Jana Last says:

    Judy,

    I want to let you know that two of your blog posts are listed in today’s Fab Finds post at http://janasgenealogyandfamilyhistory.blogspot.com/2013/06/follow-friday-fab-finds-for-june-21-2013.html

    Have a great weekend!

  9. Deidre Mercer says:

    I am against closing the availability of records in California. I know I have relatives on my husband’s side & my father’s side who lived in California. As I find information I’m so excited!
    Please rethink this!

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      It appears that the public outcry over this has worked, Deidre. But we need to keep tabs on every one of these efforts to close our records.

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