Threat Watch: Budget will cut services, spike costs for access to public records

REPRIEVE FOR CPRA!

Legislature, Gov. Brown accept budget bill that leaves open-gov law intact

Gov. Jerry Brown, Senators Darrell Steinberg and Mark Leno all reversed course on changes to CPRA in Budget Bill

It’s official!  The Public Records Act will be restored when Gov. Brown signs the Budget Bill into law.

The fate of the CPRA unfolded  this week as public and media criticism grew over the Legislature’s adoption of a section of the Budget Bill that allowed local governments to opt out of key provisions in the Public Records Act.  The Assembly was first to blink, announcing on Wednesday that it would  vote to remove the CPRA changes from the bill.  Although the Senate initially balked, public pressure prevailed on Senate leaders. Finally, Governor Brown agreed to reverse course on the budgetary cost-cutting scheme. (READ MORE)

Bill killed! Threat of $10 fees for court record search dies in legislature

Threat Watch UpdateJournalists, open government advocates and thousands of concerned citizens made their outrage heard all the way to Sacramento and this week legislators turned a deaf ear on the Administrative Office of the Courts proposal to levy a charge of $10 per file to look at court records.

The bill died when a joint budget conference committee representing both chambers voted to accept the Assembly version of the bill, ending a threat that could have dealt a devastating blow to the people’s right to know.

Courthouse News reported that the AOC also took criticism on their already tarnished record on  transparency — including proposing rules  that would delay access to court records until they have been officially accepted, a process that can take weeks and destroys the news interest in a new court filings.

AOC also took heat for  denying information requests by  the Alliance of California Judges that called the AOC’s response to requests for information an “is an assault on the basic notion of open government that as Americans we expect of those who are funded by public dollars.”

Budget Committee: CPRA provisions, Court fees stay on the chopping block

Let Sacramento know your rights aren’t bargaining chips!

Threat Watch Update The Budget Conference Committee has reviewed the proposed court file search fee and suspension of the  CPRA provisions to assist a requester and to provide electronic records.  All were determined to be state mandates, which the committee left  “open, ” i.e., the committee did not reject or approve the items.

The result is both issues are still in play and, are likely to become part of the larger budget wrangling between the Assembly, which rejected both proposals, and the Senate, which approved them, and the AOC, which just wants more money.

As a lever, the Assembly proposed in a budget meeting that it would be willing to give the Courts more money but it would require in legislation that all administrative meetings of the Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC)  and all committees be open and public.

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Threat uptick: Court records fee pass Senate Budget Subcommittee

Threat Watch Update!

June 7, 2013 – Last week the fee to pay for a court employee to search for court records or files was passed by the Senate Budget Subcommittee that oversees the Judiciary on a 2-1 vote after the proposal was amended to allow an exemption for the press.

Later the same day the Assembly Budget Subcommittee overseeing the issue rejected the proposal for the second time.

Let your representatives know what you think of these new fees that would allow the courts to charge a search fee of $10 anytime a reporter or member of the public makes a request to see a record or file. The new search fee would be in addition to the costs associated with receiving a copy of a court record or file, which would also be increased in the proposal.

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 Take Action Now!

Threat Watch UpdateCPRA not safe from the shredder yet!

Brown revised budget due next week

May 8,  2013 –  Last month both Senate and Assembly Budget Subcommittees rejected the court’s’ proposal to raise fees on court documents. Unfortunately, this proposal will get a second chance to woo subcommittee members when Governor Brown submits his revised budget to state legislators next week.

The proposed documents fee lost momentum when subcommittees heard evidence that the increase would not cover the costs of responding to large requesters, but would “create a system where the public and journalists end up subsidizing data miners large requests or, more likely because of the cost, would erect an insurmountable barrier to access this information,” according to the  CNPA Legislative Bulletin. 

Jerry Brown revised budget due next week.

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6 Threat watch icon copy copyThreat Watch: Access to public records on budget chopping block

 

Gov. Brown 2013 proposed budget

The Threats:

Hidden in Governor Brown’s budget are new fees and funding cuts that will seriously weaken citizens’ rights of access to public records.

Casefiles of FAC's Friend of the Court briefs

1. Court Fees

Californians have a constitutional right to view records filed in court cases. The Governor’s budget would condition one’s execise of that right on the payment of a hefty fee: specifically, a $10 search fee for every name, file or item of information that the search produces, regardless of the time spent on the search.

Although current law permits a charge for searches taking more than 10 minutes, the charge is rarely assessed because most searches take less than 10 minutes (and because some high-volume requesters, “gaming” the fee, break down large searches into multiple small parts). The new fee would apply to all searches and to all requesters (with a sole exception for litigants requesting records in their own cases). It would also boost copying charges to $1/page, well above the courts’ actual costs.

This increase is part of a trailer bill to the Governor’s budget, which means it will be voted on without any legislative deliberation or chance for public comment. It was proposed by the Administrative Office of the Courts and endorsed by the state’s Department of Finance.

Why Does It Matter?

The court fees are so high that they come close to nullifying the  right of access altogether. The right of access to courts, guaranteed by the First Amendment, is needed to assure the public that the judiciary is deciding cases fairly and honestly, without bias or favoritism.

When judicial business is conducted in secrecy–as it is in many other countries–the public understandably assumes that the judges and other court officials must have something to hide. Secrecy not only deprives citizens of their right to know what the courts are doing, but it damages the legitimacy of the courts.

For more insights on why this issue should matter to you, here are links to recent newspaper editorials on proposed fee increases.

The San Francisco Chronicle  “The fee undercuts the notion of open records, a transparent legal system and public accountability. … These charges diminish public trust and confidence.”

The Redding Record Searchlight  “The new fee will pinch more among the average citizens with an interest in public records — to keep an eye on lawsuits involving City Hall or the school board or a development or crime in their own neighborhood. Every new fee is a new barrier that makes it harder for them to do their civic duty.”

The Monterey Herald  “A $10 search fee would be devastating to newspapers and other news operations, especially relatively small ones such as The Herald.”

Raise your voice!What You Can Do About It

Tell Governor Brown that you oppose steep new fees for access to case files and other records filed in California’s courts. Write your own message, or feel free to copy the italicized text below, then paste your message into the email form provided on the Governor’s website (using the indicated button). You can also contact your state Senator and Assemblymember. Most important, urge your friends & contacts to join in telling the Governor NO to proposed new court fees. (Social media icons are at bottom of page.)

As a California voter and concerned citizen, I am writing to urge you, in the strongest terms, to remove provisions in your proposed 2013-14 state budget that would authorize imposition of steep new fees for access to the court files of all cases in California’s courts.

Access to court records, like access to judicial hearings and trials, is a fundamental right guaranteed by the First Amendment. Its exercise may not be conditioned on the payment of a heavy fee (any more than the right to vote can be conditioned on payment of a poll tax). While the courts have experienced substantial budget cuts in recent years, charging citizens to view court files is the wrong way to raise money for the judicial branch.

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CPRA-Public Records Act2. De-Funding Access to Local Government Information

California’s Public Records Act (PRA) requires local governments to give citizens access to records–public records–that they ask to see. The state must reimburse local governments for their costs of complying with some PRA requirements, deemed “mandates.” Governor Brown’s budget cuts off funding for these mandates, with the result that the mandated functions will become optional for local governments.

What mandated local government functions are affected? One is the PRA’s requirement that local governments assist citizens in making record requests–for example, by helping them describe the desired records in a way that will facilitate their identification and retrieval by the agency. Gov. Code Section 6253.1.

Another is the requirement that local governments, following receipt of a request for records, must “promptly notify the person making the request of the determination and the reasons” for denying part or all of the request. Gov. Code Section 6253(c).

While some local governments may continue to adhere to the section 6253.1 and section 6253(c) requirements, others will use the budget’s suspension of mandate payments as an excuse to avoid access requirements with which they barely complied even when they could bill  the state for all their costs. Indeed, local governments have over-billed the state, greatly exaggerating their costs of providing mandated PRA functions.

Why Does It Matter?

The defunding of PRA mandates will undermine the public’s rights to information about local government: cities, counties, school boards and more. Agencies and local governments that have long resisted PRA compliance will seize on the mandate-defunding as an excuse to limit the flow of information to voters to a dribble of self-serving communications.

There can be no public accountability when the public can’t find out what its local representatives are doing.

The following editorials will help make clear why allowing local governments the option to discontinue these CPRA provisions is a threat to the public’s right to know:

Santa Rosa Press Democrat: Keeping the sun shining on public records

The Sacramento Bee: Public’s right to know is too basic to risk

Vallejo Times-Herald:  Access must not carry a price tag

Raise your voice!What You Can Do About It

Tell Governor Brown that you OPPOSE the suspension of state reimbursement for local governments’ mandated PRA functions. Write your own message, or feel free to copy the italicized text below, then paste the message into the email form provided on the Governor’s website. (You can also make your views known to your Assembly member and Senator, using the indicated buttons).  Please also urge your friends & contacts to join in registering their disapproval to PRA cutbacks.  (Social media icons are at bottom of page.)

As a California voter who believes strongly in government accountability and transparency, I am writing to OPPOSE provisions in the 2013-14 state budget that would weaken the Public Records Act by freeing local governments–city councils, county supervisors, school boards, and many more–to discontinue important functions prescribed by the PRA: specifically, 1) assisting citizens in formulating requests for public records and 2) sending written and timely explanations when denying a request to view public records. See Gov. Code sections 6253.1 and 6253(c).

Making compliance with the PRA optional is a terrible mistake. While some local governments will continue to abide by the law, those local governments with the most to hide from their citizens will use the suspension of mandate funding as an excuse to pull down the shades, lock the doors and generally disregard citizens’ requests for information about their policies and priorities.

To be sure, local governments for years have abused mandated PRA funding by over-charging the state for the costs of compliance. Over-charges have been so excessive that they border on fraudulent. But over-charging can be curbed by requiring local officials, when billing the state for reimbursement, to certify “under penalty of perjury,” that the amounts are accurate and reflect only the direct cost of mandate compliance.

This prophylactic step will cut state costs dramatically while maintaining local governments’ crucial disclosure obligations.

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