Two new ex­am­ples of how Cal­i­for­nia’s politi­cians like to keep us in the dark

The Fresno Bee (Sunday) - - Opinion - BY DAN WALTERS CAL­mat­ters Colum­nist CAL­mat­ters is a pub­lic in­ter­est jour­nal­ism ven­ture com­mit­ted to ex­plain­ing how Cal­i­for­nia’s state Capi­tol works and why it mat­ters.

Ev­ery year, gov­er­nors and state leg­is­la­tors load up bills that sup­pos­edly im­ple­ment the state bud­get with all sorts of ex­tracur­ric­u­lar pro­vi­sions ben­e­fit­ing those to whom they owe fa­vors.

They use these “trailer bills” be­cause they can be, and of­ten have been, passed very quickly af­ter be­ing drafted, thereby con­ceal­ing their good­ies from pub­lic scru­tiny un­til they are safely en­acted.

Af­ter many years of such shenani­gans, some re­form­ers fi­nally placed a mea­sure on the bal­lot to re­quire 72-hour no­tice be­fore bills can have their fi­nal votes. The Capi­tol’s politi­cians didn’t like it, and have man­aged to par­tially by­pass it, but it’s still on the books.

It’s an ex­am­ple of how Cal­i­for­nia politi­cians pay lip ser­vice to open gov­ern­ment, but fun­da­men­tally pre­fer se­crecy.

Two new ex­am­ples of the hos­til­ity to air­ing the pub­lic’s busi­ness have arisen, both deal­ing with an­other state law, the Pub­lic Records Act (PRA), which, with a few spec­i­fied ex­cep­tions, re­quires of­fi­cial doc­u­ments to be pub­lic.

One is Se­nate Bill 615 by Sen. Ben Hueso, a Chula Vista Demo­crat, which would make it much more dif­fi­cult to com­pel state and lo­cal agen­cies to com­ply with PRA re­quests.

It’s not un­com­mon for agen­cies to stonewall or drag their feet on re­quests for doc­u­ments un­der the law, es­pe­cially when they might be em­bar­rass­ing to of­fi­cial­dom.

The PRA doesn’t have an au­to­matic en­force­ment mech­a­nism, so one of the few ways jour­nal­ists and oth­ers can force the is­sue is through the courts.

Hueso’s bill, how­ever, would com­pel those re­quest­ing doc­u­ments to go through a se­ries of pre­lim­i­nary hoops, force them to prove in court that agen­cies stalled com­pli­ance “know­ingly, will­fully and with­out sub­stan­tial jus­ti­fi­ca­tion,” and make it more dif­fi­cult to col­lect le­gal costs from agen­cies that lose law­suits.

Hueso’s of­fice says the bill, in­tro­duced at the re­quest of the San Diego city at­tor­ney’s of­fice, is aimed at stream­lin­ing the PRA process, but those who em­ploy the law say it’s an ob­vi­ous at­tempt to un­der­mine the law.

James Ew­ert, a lawyer for the Cal­i­for­nia News Pub­lish­ers As­so­ci­a­tion, told Voice of San Diego, the lo­cal news site that blew the whis­tle on Hueso’s mea­sure, “If Sen. Hueso is try­ing to make it more dif­fi­cult for mem­bers of the pub­lic to get info about their gov­ern­ment, this will be a smash­ing suc­cess.”

The sec­ond as­sault on the PRA is be­ing waged by an­other Demo­crat, At­tor­ney Gen­eral Xavier Be­cerra.

Al­though a new law re­quires records of po­lice mis­con­duct to be made pub­lic, Be­cerra has stiffed re­quests for in­for­ma­tion about the in­ves­ti­ga­tors in his of­fice and is threat­en­ing le­gal, or even crim­i­nal, ac­tion against one jour­nal­is­tic or­ga­ni­za­tion that man­aged to ob­tain some records.

UC Berke­ley’s In­ves­tiga­tive Re­port­ing Pro­gram used the PRA to ob­tain nearly 12,000 names of law en­force­ment of­fi­cers or ap­pli­cants who had com­mit­ted crimes rang­ing from shoplift­ing to mur­der.

Those con­vic­tions them­selves are mat­ters of pub­lic record, and the com­pi­la­tion came from the Com­mis­sion on Po­lice Of­fi­cer Stan­dards and Train­ing (POST) via a PRA re­quest.

Be­cerra then de­manded that the records be re­turned or de­stroyed, say­ing they shouldn’t have been re­leased, and warned that “unau­tho­rized re­ceipt or pos­ses­sion” of the data is a mis­de­meanor.

“If you do not in­tend to com­ply with our re­quest, the de­part­ment can take le­gal ac­tion,” the De­part­ment of Jus­tice told the jour­nal­ists.

So Be­cerra is telling us that we shouldn’t know that thou­sands of po­lice of­fi­cers have com­mit­ted crimes and is threat­en­ing to pros­e­cute those who defy him.

Sun­shine, it’s been said, is the best dis­in­fec­tant for of­fi­cial mis­con­duct — but ob­vi­ously Hueso and Be­cerra would like to keep us in the dark.

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