The League of California Cities asked Gov. Gavin Newsom last week to partially suspend the state’s Public Records Act, a move that has drawn rebuke from transparency and press freedom organizations. [Press Democrat]
California’s Public Records Act requires agencies to respond to record requests within 10 days. The League of California Cities, which represents nearly 500 cities, including all seven in San Luis Obispo County, is asking the state to allow public agencies to delay their responses to record requests.
League spokeswoman Kayla Woods said the proposed delay would not apply to records created during and related to the coronavirus crisis. The organization is not seeking to suspend all public record requests but wants cities to have flexibility if decreased staffing or closure of certain facilities is impeding their ability to respond on time, Woods said.
“Cities have varying levels of staffing and resources, and are focusing nearly all of their efforts on responding to this public health crisis,” Woods stated in an email.
The League of Cities requested that Newsom suspend numerous laws or parts of laws, not just the Public Records Act.
Newsom has already temporarily suspended parts of California’s open meeting laws, allowing boards and commissions to meet and vote by teleconference and exempting rules allowing members of the public to address governmental bodies in person.
Likewise, some local government agencies have already attempted to suspend transparency laws. The mayor of San Francisco suspended the city’s Sunshine Law, and the Fresno City Council voted to suspend the entire California Public Records Act.
In Sonoma County, a Santa Rosa Press-Democrat reporter submitted a request for emails related to the coronavirus response. A Sonoma County official responded, “the public’s interest is not served by diverting staff resources away from essential emergency response work to immediately respond to records requests.”
Later, a county attorney said officials would process such requests when normal business resumes.
Among other rules the League is requesting be rolled back, the organization is asking that the state suspend a law requiring public officials to file statements of economic interest and to pay fees for late submissions. The law is considered a key component of the effort to reveal public officials’ conflicts of interest should they arise.
Last week, the First Amendment Coalition and press freedom groups released a joint statement condemning public officials’ attempts to sidestep the California Public Records Act.
“The public’s right of access remains and is crucial in times of crisis. Just as the government’s power is at its apex during a crisis, the importance of the public’s right to know how their government is wielding that power could not be greater,” the statement says. “The First Amendment Coalition and the undersigned groups therefore condemn moves by some government entities to abandon their obligations under the California Public Records Act and the California Constitution, and we strongly urge them to reconsider.”