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Schwarzenegger vetoes open records law

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NEWS MEDIA UPDATE   ·   CALIFORNIA   ·   Freedom of Information   ·   Oct. 12, 2006

NEWS MEDIA UPDATE   ·   CALIFORNIA   ·   Freedom of Information   ·   Oct. 12, 2006

Schwarzenegger vetoes open records law

  • In vetoing a law passed unanimously by the Legislature, the governor blocked a new system for the California attorney general’s office to review state agency denials of public records requests.

Oct. 12, 2006  ·   California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has vetoed a law that would have facilitated public records requests on the Internet and empowered the attorney general’s office to mediate freedom of information disputes.

The bill had passed both houses of the California State Legislature unanimously.

The law would have required the state attorney general to review an agency’s denial of a public record request and provide a written opinion on the validity of the denial within 20 days of being asked by the requester. Open government advocates had pushed for the measure as an alternative to costly litigation.

“Right now in California, someone who makes a request that is denied by a state or local agency has only two options. One is to sue . . . and the other is to walk away with his tail between his legs,” said Thomas W. Newton, general counsel of the California Newspaper Publishers Association.

The attorney general would also have been required to publish the opinions in an annual volume and to make them available on the Internet. Newton said this collection of “non-binding, persuasive authority” could have been a valuable tool for requesters in negotiations with government entities over the proper scope of a disputed disclosure.

Schwarzenegger was the third governor in a row to veto a bill imposing these duties on the attorney general’s office. Former Govs. Pete Wilson and Gray Davis had vetoed similar measures, with Davis doing so twice.

Terry Francke, general counsel for Californians Aware, a nonprofit open government group that had pushed this year’s version of the bill, said the governor’s actions were especially disappointing given his campaign promises to make state government more transparent.

“This was the first governor in California history who in campaigning for that office made an open government pledge as a commitment and priority if elected,” Francke said. “Here was a chance for him to do the right thing and finally deliver on his very conspicuous sunshine commitment, and he turns out to be no more enthusiastic about transparent government as any of his predecessors.”

In a statement announcing his veto, Schwarzenegger said imposing so many requirements on the attorney general would be “unduly burdensome.”

Schwarzenegger also said asking the attorney general to issue an opinion on the propriety of an agency’s actions would have created a conflict-of-interest problem had the dispute eventually ended up in court.

“The Attorney General is the attorney for most State agencies and advises agencies on responding to such requests and thus the bill creates an inherent conflict of interest,” Schwarzenegger said.

Newton said he is now convinced the executive branch will never accept a major role for the attorney general’s office in public records disputes. Newton said he plans to advise his board to support other models, such as an independent freedom of information ombudsman, possibly located in the consumer affairs agency.

In addition to the attorney general opinions, the proposed law would have imposed fines up to $10,000 on agencies that failed to comply with the law or that in bad faith frustrated “timely and complete access.”

Also, had the law been enacted, any state agency with a Web site would have been required to create an online “Public Records Center.” The centers would have provided information about how to request records and a mechanism for doing so online.

The state Senate approved the bill 40-0; the Assembly approved it on a 78-0 vote.

(Assembly Bill 2927)NW

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