Bill to help public get state records is tabled by Democrats. It must get second try

A proposed bill that would help Californians get public records got unfortunately shelved for the year, a victim of partisanship in the state Senate. Here’s hoping it has a fairer treatment next year.

Assemblyman Vince Fong, a Republican from Bakersfield, is co-author of AB 289. The bill would create an ombudsman in the state auditor’s office to take up appeals from the public when requests for public records are denied by state agencies.

For an example, numerous media outlets requested records on the state’s poorly handled motor voter program. The involved agencies dragged their feet, and only a threat of a lawsuit forced the state to furnish the records.

Under Fong’s bill, If an agency denies a request for records, the requester could appeal to the ombudsman. That person would have a month to review the request and issue a ruling. If the ombudsman finds the request for the records to be legitimate, the state agency would have to turn them over.

If the ombudsman rules against the requester, that person could then sue to get the records. As it stands now, that is the only recourse the public has when faced with an agency’s denial. Fong is trying to create a middle step so the public does not have to face court costs. As he noted before the Senate Judiciary Committee, most people won’t go to court because of the expense.

The bill cleared the state Assembly with no opposing votes, but got hung up in the Judiciary Committee. Only two members there voted for it — Andreas Borgeas of Fresno and Brian Jones of El Cajon. Both are Republicans. The seven other members, all Democrats, voted against it: Chairwoman Hannah-Beth Jackson, Santa Barbara; Maria Elena Durazo, Los Angeles; Lena Gonzalez, Long Beach; Bill Monning, Monterey; Henry Stern, Calabasas; Tom Umberg, Santa Ana; Bob Wieckowski, Fremont. Jackson agreed to Fong’s request to table the bill so he could bring it back next year.

Fong sees the situation as David — the public — vs. Goliath, the state. He told the Judiciary Committee he wants to bring better balance to the scale.

Borgeas, the vice chairman of the committee, indicated in the hearing that he agreed with that analogy. “This is important. Not just for those in the business of information — it is for everyday residents of California. This is exactly what we need to make certain that with David and Goliath, one of them is brought down to size.”

Fong’s measure and Borgeas’ support are based on common sense as well as the simple truth that, sometimes, state government unfairly streamrolls its citizens. But the Democratic majority would prefer politics as usual. The Judiciary Committee staff raised a number of objections that smoke-screen the real meaning behind the no votes, including the idea that only the courts should rule on denials for public information. For the party that fashions itself as the supporter of the common man, such a notion is contradictory.

Fong needs to play the long game and bring back his measure next year. Borgeas, meanwhile, has more time to try to win over his Democratic colleagues to the noble idea that a government by the people, for the people also needs to be fully transparent to the people.