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Task force: records law routinely violated, rarely enforced

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Task force: records law routinely violated, rarely enforced 08/24/98 CALIFORNIA--A July report issued by the state legislature's Joint Legislative Task…

Task force: records law routinely violated, rarely enforced

08/24/98

CALIFORNIA–A July report issued by the state legislature’s Joint Legislative Task Force on Government Oversight sharply criticized the state Public Records Act as an ineffectual means of keeping government officials honest. Finding that the act “is routinely violated and rarely enforced,” the task force concluded that the law “has become of little appreciable value to the public.”

Entitled “Keep Out: The Failure of the California Public Records Act,” the report recommends revamping the statute’s language so it can be easily understood, clarifying the time-frame requirements for compliance or denial, consolidating scattered exemptions and adding sanctions that will encourage compliance rather than denial.

The fundamental weakness of the act is the lack of an effective enforcement mechanism when public officials refuse to release public documents, the task force said. As currently written, the act is of little value to the public and will remain so until it is revised to provide simple and effective recourse in cases of noncompliance, the task force concluded.

The report examines deficiencies in the law itself, court decisions that have eroded the effectiveness of the act, and offers examples of instances where journalists’ requests have been denied. The report also describes open government laws in three states — Florida, Connecticut and Kentucky — that the task force said offer models on which changes to California’s law could be based.

The task force, which was established in 1997 to provide assistance to the legislature in meeting its responsibility for oversight of state government, compiled the report after requesting and obtaining information from state government agencies. (Keep Out: The Failure of the California Public Records Act, Prepared for Senator Byron Sher (D-Stanford))