The public’s right to know is more im­por­tant than ever

The Fresno Bee (Sunday) - - Opinion - BY KARL OL­SON Spe­cial to The Fresno Bee Karl Ol­son is a San Fran­cisco at­tor­ney who spe­cial­izes in lit­i­ga­tion un­der the Public Records Act and Free­dom of In­for­ma­tion Act.

We just wrapped up Na­tional Sun­shine Week, a time when we raise aware­ness of the public’s right to know what’s go­ing on be­hind the scenes of gov­ern­ment. This year is es­pe­cially im­por­tant due to sus­tained at­tacks on trans­parency and ac­count­abil­ity at the lo­cal, state and na­tional lev­els.

Al­most ev­ery elected of­fi­cial, from dog­catcher to pres­i­dent, cam­paigns on a plat­form of “trans­parency” and guard­ing tax­payer dol­lars. It’s one thing ev­ery­one — in­clud­ing both Demo­cratic and Repub­li­can can­di­dates — usu­ally agrees on. But when these can­di­dates get into of­fice, it’s al­most al­ways a dif­fer­ent story.

Many state and lo­cal bu­reau­crats re­flex­ively say “no” when they get Public Records Act re­quests. If they don’t deny the re­quests, they al­most in­vari­ably de­lay be­yond the 10-day pe­riod set by state law for dis­clo­sure. Of­ten, they de­lay their re­sponses for months.

The Cal­i­for­nia State Leg­is­la­ture opened things up last year by pass­ing a law, Se­nate Bill 1421, to open up records of po­lice dis­ci­pline in of­fi­cer-in­volved shoot­ings. That wel­come step re­versed laws which had, for decades, kept some po­lice dis­ci­pline records un­der wraps.

But now po­lice of­fi­cer unions have launched a blitz of at­tacks on the law, ar­gu­ing that it doesn’t ap­ply to records of in­ci­dents com­mit­ted be­fore Jan. 1 of this year. Most judges thus far have re­jected the unions’ ar­gu­ments.

The po­lice unions’ at­tack on trans­parency was pre­ceded by an at­tempt a decade ago to hide public em­ployee salaries and pen­sions from public scru­tiny. For­tu­nately, the Cal­i­for­nia courts ruled in fa­vor of trans­parency, guar­an­tee­ing that the public has a right to know how much public em­ploy­ees and pen­sion­ers make.

On the na­tional level, Pres­i­dent Trump has made no se­cret of his dis­dain for the press. Un­like Democrats, he hasn’t even given lip ser­vice to the public’s right to know. His pre­de­ces­sor, Pres­i­dent Obama, came into of­fice on a plat­form of trans­form­ing and strength­en­ing the Free­dom of In­for­ma­tion Act. Yet any­one who has sub­mit­ted a FOIA re­quest knows that it can take years to get a re­sponse.

Mean­while, big busi­ness is now ask­ing the United States Supreme Court to weaken FOIA by let­ting busi­nesses hide records from the public when­ever they say that in­for­ma­tion they give the gov­ern­ment to get tax dol­lars is “con­fi­den­tial,” even if the re­lease of the in­for­ma­tion won’t cause com­pet­i­tive harm.

Na­tional Sun­shine Week is a good op­por­tu­nity for the public to ap­pre­ci­ate laws like the Cal­i­for­nia Public Records Act and FOIA, which were writ­ten to give the public the right to know how its tax dol­lars are spent and to hold public of­fi­cials ac­count­able.

We can’t let our public of­fi­cials get away with pay­ing lip ser­vice to trans­parency while si­mul­ta­ne­ously re­sist­ing trans­parency. We must be more ag­gres­sive about hold­ing them ac­count­able for turn­ing over records that let tax­pay­ers see how their gov­ern­ment op­er­ates and how their money is be­ing spent.

MARY ALTAFFER AP file photo

A New York po­lice of­fi­cer wears a newly is­sued body cam­era. The Cal­i­for­nia State Leg­is­la­ture has opened up records of po­lice dis­ci­pline in of­fi­cer-in­volved shoot­ings.

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