Oct. 24, 2007 · Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed a bill earlier this month that would have closed a significant loophole in California’s open meetings law, but a lead supporter of the bill noted that the measure had been eviscerated well before it ever reached the governor’s desk.
In its final form, S.B. 964 would have prohibited a majority of the members of a local agency’s legislative body from discussing, deliberating upon or taking action on matters within its jurisdiction when the communications were not open to the public and were otherwise required by law to be so.
The bill was meant to address a 2006 state appeals court ruling that found local officials could hold such discussions without public input – for example, through e-mail correspondence, over the phone or through intermediaries – provided the discussions did not result in a “collective concurrence.”
Tom Newton, general counsel for the California Newspaper Publishers Association and a lead supporter of the bill, said the original version of S.B. 964 had included a provision that would have authorized the state attorney general’s office to review rejected open records requests. The original version would also have permitted a court to assess penalties upon a state or local agency in addition to legal fees if the court found the agency had acted in bad faith in denying a public records act request, Newton said.
Aside from the normal political pitfalls, Newton declined to speculate specifically as to why the two provisions were ultimately dropped from the final bill. In its relatively diluted form, the measure should have easily gained the governor’s signature, he said.
“We’re really disappointed that [Gov. Schwarzenegger] would veto such a mild improvement to the public records act,” Newton said.
In his veto message signed Oct. 5, the governor said the bill “imposes an impractical standard for compliance on local officials and could potentially prohibit communication among officials and agency staff outside of a public meeting.”
Newton said he expected the bill, complete with the attorney general and bad faith penalty provisions, to be introduced again next year.
(S.B. 964) — Scott Albright