California Group Proposes Ballot Measure to Boost Access to Public Records, Increase Government Transparency

California Group Proposes Ballot Measure to Boost Access to Public Records, Increase Government Transparency

The California State Capitol building in Sacramento, Calif., on April 18, 2022. (John Fredricks/The Epoch Times)

Travis Gillmore

Travis Gillmore

8/4/2023

Updated: 12/30/2023

A ballot initiative filed Aug. 2 with California’s Attorney General seeks to strengthen open records laws and provide public access to more legislative documents and records, as polling shows the proposal to be overwhelmingly popular.
Meanwhile, proponents are suggesting that public access and government accountability are long overdue.
“Unfortunately, we have a culture of non-transparency in the State of California at government agencies, and that needs to change,” Jerry Flanagan told The Epoch Times. He’s the author of the initiative (pdf) and litigation director for Consumer Watchdog—a California-based public advocacy group.
Several pages of the measure define the records in need of better public access, including lobbying meetings, fundraising events, and functions financed with taxpayer or donor money.
One provision details the need for lawmakers to retain records pertaining to their misconduct and provide them on request to journalists or constituents.
The proposal focuses on state agencies by mandating all records be held for a minimum of five years and all public access requests be accommodated within 30 calendar days of request.
While opponents say the measure would be detrimental to workflow processes, public polling suggests that 71 percent of Californians across party lines and demographic groups support the proposal, according to polling conducted by FM3 Research—a public policy research firm based in California.
Voting ballots move forward in the audit process at the Orange County Registrar's office in Santa Ana, Calif., on June 9, 2022. (John Fredricks/The Epoch Times)

Voting ballots move forward in the audit process at the Orange County Registrar's office in Santa Ana, Calif., on June 9, 2022. (John Fredricks/The Epoch Times)

“Voters of all stripes are aligned in the belief that the public should have greater access to government documents to ensure effective oversight and scrutiny of public officials and their decisions,” Paul Maslin, research partner at the polling firm overseeing the study, said in its analysis. “It is extremely rare in our experience, particularly in the recent polarized environment, to see such broad support as this for a measure across partisan and ideological lines.”
Given such broad support, Mr. Maslin said he believes the proposed initiative would be approved by voters if placed on the ballot.
“There is widespread agreement among voters across the political spectrum that government agencies must be more responsive to public requests for documents in order to promote accountability among government officials,” he wrote in the report.
Critics, however, say the proposal will hamper agencies’ ability to conduct business and cost taxpayers millions of dollars in the process, with some saying that it’s unnecessary because of existing California open records laws. 
Supporters point to instances in which records were held from the public, including Public Utility Commission documents related to the 2018 Paradise fire—the deadliest wildfire in state history—with the City of San Jose repeatedly delaying and “perpetually extending” deadlines. They also highlight eight counties that use what are described as excessive pay-per-view schemes including Mendocino County charging more than $84,000 to provide requested documents to one constituent. 
Supporters say such activity is in violation of Article I of the state Constitution—in which guarantees are made that “writings of public officials and agencies shall be open to public scrutiny”—and the Public Records Act, passed by the Legislature in 1968.
“In California, we have this Catch-22 where the Constitution guarantees us access to government documents and meetings. However, the laws that implement those promises are full of loopholes that prevent access to government records,” Mr. Flanagan told The Epoch Times. “For every law, there’s a loophole. This [measure] takes the law and closes the loopholes.”
Currently, cities and counties are required to retain documents for two years, but no such rules apply to state agencies. Assembly Bill 2370—introduced in 2022 by Assemblyman Marc Levine (D-San Rafael)—sought to address that discrepancy by applying the same conditions to all government agencies.
While the proposal received broad bipartisan support during legislative hearings and passed the Assembly and committees without a single “no” vote, it ultimately died in back-room discussions and languished in the Senate Appropriations Committee’s “suspense file.”
The text of failed AB 2370 contained a single sentence establishing a two-year minimum retention period, but the proposed initiative goes much further, with 29 pages outlining provisions designed to strengthen public oversight and help ensure government accountability and transparency.
The California state Capitol in Sacramento on April 18, 2022. (John Fredricks/The Epoch Times)

The California state Capitol in Sacramento on April 18, 2022. (John Fredricks/The Epoch Times)

Such is imperative especially when things start to go wrong, according to the proposal’s author.
“When a state agency gets caught doing something it shouldn’t be doing, that goes hand-in-hand with, ‘We don’t want to give you the records,’” Mr. Flanagan said. “It’s unfortunate that the culture is that agency heads act more like a defense counsel for corporate defendants as opposed to government agencies that are supposed to take seriously the Constitutional mandate for an open government.”
Prior training manuals produced by the state included cartoon graphics instructing employees to “avoid litigation” by deleting records as soon as retention periods expired—and with no periods mandated for many state agencies, email records were routinely deleted after 60 days, according to experts.
“It really drives the point home when you see these cartoons,” Mr. Flanagan said. “They were basically telling people we’ll have ‘deletion day.’ It’s jaw-dropping.”
A letter sent to the secretary of state in March 2022 by Consumer Watchdog, and provided to The Epoch Times on Aug. 3, resulted in the manual’s removal from state websites, although questions remain as to what current protocols and training exist pertaining to document retention.
The State Administrative Manual—outlining protocols and regulations—fails to define minimum retention periods and redirects agencies to the California Records and Information Management program for specifics.
Its website has no details related to retention periods and informs readers that the agency is “currently updating our resources and information.”
With the ballot proposal filed, the next steps include gathering signatures and meeting deadlines to qualify for the November 2024 ballot.
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Travis Gillmore

Travis Gillmore

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Travis Gillmore is an avid reader and journalism connoisseur based in California covering finance, politics, the State Capitol, and breaking news for The Epoch Times.

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