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Lawmakers send amendment on open government to voters

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    News Media Update         CALIFORNIA         Freedom of Information    

Lawmakers send amendment on open government to voters

  • Voters in California will decide in a November referendum whether or not open government should be a constitutional right.

Jan. 16, 2004 — An amendment to the California Constitution that could enhance public access to government documents and meetings was approved by state lawmakers Monday. The proposed amendment will now be voted upon by the public in a November referendum.

The state Assembly voted unanimously on the measure , 76-0, on Jan. 14, while the California Senate passed the motion in June, also without a dissenting vote. The Senate passed the amendment in each of the last two years, but the measure died in the Assembly.

The amendment does contain various exemptions, however. The right of public access will not supersede privacy rights already defined in the state constitution. Also exempted from the bill would be the legislature itself, which has its own open records law.

Kent Pollock, executive director of the California First Amendment Coalition, said the legislation would not have passed without an exemption for the legislature, The Associated Press reported.

“I think they were concerned about their caucuses (being opened),” Pollock said. “[T]hey were concerned about some of the deliberative process that goes on . . . they just wanted to maintain the status quo.”

“When it comes to public information, there are too many unnecessary roadblocks and too many easy refusals,” Sen. John Burton, president pro tem and author of the bill, told the AP. “Voters will now be able to make sure the public and the press have the access they deserve to important government meetings and materials.”

First Amendment groups say the constitutional amendment would reverse more than a decade of legal decisions that have made California’s open records laws among the most restrictive in the country. Currently, those seeking public records or access to government meetings must first show why disclosure is necessary. A presumption of openness is common in most states.

The proposed amendment would alter the way open records requests are handled, forcing a government agency to either release the records or prove why secrecy should be required. Furthermore, the proposed amendment requires that courts must use a broad interpretation of laws and decisions that increase public access to records and meetings, and narrowly interpret those that do not.

Terry Francke, general counsel for the California First Amendment Coalition, said voters will likely approve the measure by a wide margin, although he called the legislature’s self-exemption “a very conspicuous carve-out.”

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who campaigned on the issue during last year’s recall election but has no formal role in approving constitutional amendments, said through a spokesperson that more reforms were on the way, including a requirement for more openness in the legislature. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, Schwarzenegger is also expected to propose a ban on political fund-raising during times of budget formulation, as well as a requirement for immediate disclosure of all campaign donations.

(Sen. Const. Amend. No. 1) AB

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© 2004 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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