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California open government roundup: Legislature passes bills to bolster public records access

Governor Jerry Brown announced September 17 that he signed SB 1244, a small but significant change to the California Public Records Act. The bill changes the word “plaintiff” to “requester” to forestall government agencies who block access to records from collecting fees intended for public records requesters. “The spark behind the bill was a school district’s attempt to collect $500,000 against a public records requester because technically the school district was the ‘plaintiff,’ and the requester was the defendant. Thus, the school district argued, it was entitled to the CPRA’s mandatory fee shifting provision which protects the ‘plaintiff,'” writes the California News Publishers Association, June 29, 2018.

Two other bills awaiting Brown’s signature are SB 1421 and AB 3131. SB 1421 would put certain personnel records of police and correctional officers under the California Public Records Act. The intent is to provide the public with more information on officers who used force on the job or were alleged to have been involved in misconduct. With millions of federal dollars provided to California state and local police departments for funding and military equipment, AB 3131 would require public notice of purchases of the equipment ensuring that the public has some participation in the purchases.

To settle a dispute in Carmel pitting a journalist and his open-government cohorts against the Carmel City Council, a Superior Court judge ruled that the city must release documents on the employment of a city attorney under the California Public Records Act. (Monterey Herald, September 17, 2018, by Jim Johnson)

The Hazel Hawkins Hospital is trying to remain open while its board is facing charges that it violated the Brown Act.  One board member admitted that he and others on the board had discussed the fate of the hospital in violation of the open meeting law. The board was also accused of considering partnerships with other hospitals without proper public notice. (Benito Link, September 17, 2018, by John Chadwell)

The Monterey County Weekly won a victory in Superior Court as the judge ruled that the First Amendment allowed them to publish documents relating to an alleged wrongful termination of the Greenfield city manager. The city sued the newspaper on the grounds that the documents were confidential under attorney-client privilege. The judge found that free press rights trumped attorney-client privilege. (Monterey County Weekly, September 10, 2018, by Sara Rubin)

The El Dorado District Attorney found that even though South Tahoe City Council members had possibly violated the Brown Act, the state’s open meeting law, they were not serious enough to file criminal charges. (Tahoe Daily Tribune, September 4, 2018, by Ryan Hoffman)

The Los Angeles City Council has been accused of settling lawsuits without proper deliberations. The council claimed they considered the settlements in an August 20 Budget and Fiance Committee meeting but a quorum was not present so no official meeting was possible. But two members of the committee met, made decisions but failed to report their results, another violation of the Brown Act. (City Watch, September 3, 2018, by Daniel Guss)

The editorial board of the Chico Enterprise-Record, September 2, 2018, denounced the tactics of one side of a dispute during a Chico City Council meeting, a discussion of a sit-lie ordinance allowing police to contact citizens blocking sidewalks for extended periods. After a contentious but orderly hearing with 43 speakers, one side of the issue rose and delivered a prearranged chant disrupting the meeting. The editorial board wrote, “If the protesters’ intention had been to invalidate public comment, they succeeded. We suspect instead they were intending to create a hostile environment for anyone who disagreed with them, to intimidate their foes into silence. To ensure that only one voice could be heard.”

A California appeals court denied the contention by a disbarred lawyer that a rule of the Long Beach Transit Company limiting public comments to three minutes was unreasonable and content-based. The district allows guests and staff members to exceed the three minute limit. (Metropolitan-News Enterprise, August 28, 2018, by a MetNews Staff Writer)

When a Berkeley City Council member was pulled over for running a red light and told the officer he had just voted for a pay raise for the police, it raised ethical and legal issues about the councilman’s behavior. Some doubted that Ben Bartlett had done anything illegal but questioned his judgment. A Brown Act expert said the act does not prevent anyone from disclosing discussions in closed sessions after the fact. But another attorney said mention of the raise could be a violation of the Brown Act. “If the other side knows what your bargaining issues are, or what your final deal is — where you’re willing to draw the line — it puts the public at a disadvantage,” said Emelyn C. Rodriguez who specializes in government ethics and open meeting laws.  (Berkeleyside, August 23, 2018, by Emilie Raguso)

 

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