San Diego SPJ asks Sen. Ben Hueso, City Attorney Mara Elliott to rethink proposed changes to state records act

The San Diego Pro Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists is deeply troubled by proposed state legislation that would make it more difficult for journalists and the public to understand how government works and hold officials accountable.

Senate Bill 615 — introduced by state Sen. Ben Hueso, a San Diego Democrat — sets an extremely high bar for anyone who successfully sues for the release of public records to recover attorney’s fees and costs. Currently, the California Public Records Act includes a provision that allows requesters to recover fees if a court rules an agency has improperly withheld records.

This provision is of critical importance. Media outlets and ordinary citizens can’t afford to go to court to force the disclosure of records unless they’re able to recoup attorney’s fees. The threat of lawsuits — and the requirement that government agencies pay successful requesters’ attorney’s fees — helps keep agencies honest and encourages them to voluntarily disclose records.

SB 615 seeks to remove the teeth from the California Public Records Act by permitting requesters to recoup attorney’s fees only in narrowly defined circumstances, including when records “clearly” subject to disclosure are withheld or when an agency “knowingly, willfully, and without substantial justification failed to respond to a request.” The California Newspaper Publishers Association’s general counsel says this is “a standard that’s nearly impossible to meet.”

This change would eviscerate the California Public Records Act by making it financially impossible for requesters to sue uncooperative agencies, and it would remove the only incentive for government agencies to follow the law. Under SB 615, agencies could withhold public records with impunity, knowing that if they were challenged, they wouldn’t face any consequences other than having to disclose the records they should have provided in the first place.

Hueso and the bill’s chief sponsor — San Diego City Attorney Mara Elliott — say public agencies throughout the state have been overwhelmed by records requests — though Hueso cites only three examples, including the city of San Diego, which says it fielded 4,824 requests in 2018, up from 749 in 2012. Hueso’s office says “budget constraints, limited resources and the ever-increasing amount of requests can hamper the effectiveness of government and unnecessarily exhaust taxpayer dollars.”

The solution to an increase in public records requests is not to remove the only tool the media and the public have to enforce state law. There are many other ways to address an influx of  requests, including more staffing, better staff training and publicly posting data and information that’s frequently requested. Any additional cost to taxpayers would be a small price to ensure journalists, public interest groups, community groups, advocacy organizations and taxpayers can obtain documents that illuminate how government operates.

The bill would also require requesters to “meet-and-confer” with an agency before bringing a lawsuit. In public discussions of the bill, Hueso and Elliott have focused on this less controversial provision, distracting attention from the bill’s attorney’s fees provision. Given the exchanges that already occur between requesters and agencies prior to lawsuits, the meet-and-confer requirement strikes us as superfluous.

We are disappointed in Sen. Hueso and City Attorney Elliott’s attack on government transparency and the public’s right to know. Obtaining records is often extremely difficult, time-consuming and expensive. SB 615, if approved, would seriously undermine California’s public records law and give officials free rein to conduct the people’s business outside of public view.

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