Editorial | Public records ombudsman would be a public service in California

The California Public Records Act, passed in 1968, generally requires that most government agencies respond within 10 days to a request for public records. But at times, for decades, the intent and the letter of the law have been ignored. In some cases, this is due to staffing issues, not skulduggery.

Yet there are also examples where a refusal to promptly reply — or ever reply — seems to be driven by a desire to stonewall. That appeared to be the case with what Voice of San Diego called “excruciating” “abuses” of San Diego Unified School District’s public records policy — and when the state Department of Motor Vehicles told the Los Angeles Times it has no right to see internal memos related to recent scandals written by former DMV Director Jean Shiomoto. Just last month, Chula Vista rejected a request to give The San Diego Union-Tribune copies of 124 marijuana business applications. What recourse do those who seek public records have if they are denied? Costly, time-consuming lawsuits.

Assemblyman Vince Fong, R-Bakersfield, thinks that’s unacceptable. He intends to introduce legislation that would create an ombudsman position in the Bureau of State Audits that would be tasked with reviewing how agencies disclose public records and whether their decisions to deny information are justifiable under the exemptions set out in 1968. The DMV’s decision to deny access to Shiomoto’s memos because they “reflect the internal deliberations” of the agency is ludicrous and a perfect example as to why Fong’s measure should quickly become law.

“How do you hold a state government accountable if you don’t know what’s happening?” Fong said to the Times. That point can’t be made enough.