California bill would require searchable format for public records…now that’s progress!

Great news from the good folks at CaliforniaWatch:

California could become the first state in the nation to require that public agencies provide their records in searchable formats, such as Excel or Word.

A bill making its way through the Legislature would establish an open data standard, requiring agencies to buy software that offers data in searchable formats when replacing existing technology. Agencies would also have to use these formats when posting data online or responding to requests for public records.

Currently, many agencies provide information in image files that are not searchable even though they also store that data in more easily searchable formats.

An open standard would provide greater transparency, according to the bill’s author state, Sen. Leland Yee, D-San Francisco. Yee’s office began writing the legislation after First Amendment advocates complained that some public records were largely impenetrable because they could not be searched…

…New Hampshire is the only other state that has approved a similar, if less restrictive, open source law. New Hampshire’s legislation, approved in January, requires state agencies to consider open source software when acquiring software and encourages public agencies to make public records available in an open data format.

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On the sunshine soap opera playing out in California…

NFOIC chief Ken Bunting puts the dispute into perspective:

City councils, public commissions, county and school boards and special district governing bodies in California may continue to hold their meetings in the figurative “sunlight,” as well they should.

But in an action that has received little notice except for niche blogs, the 59-year-old “Brown Act,” the state open meetings law that compels them to hold most deliberations, discussions and decision-making sessions in public, was largely eviscerated four weeks ago.

The legislature had its reasons — too little money, supposedly — and I will try and restrain my inner cynic and its tendency to see more sinister motives. But a series of recent events provides a sound and ample context for those suspicions.

Five months before the Legislature suspended key provisions of the Brown Act, the district attorney’s office in Los Angeles County informed the Board of Supervisors that a meeting it had held behind closed doors with Gov. Jerry Brown was a clear violation of the state’s open meeting law. The DA took no follow-up action. And, while government leaders in the most populous county in the nation’s most populous state may have been a bit chagrined, their public posture was anything but apologetic.

Then, just two months before the Legislature gutted the Brown Act, Los Angeles County settled a lawsuit brought by Californians Aware (CalAware), a nonprofit advocacy group that promotes governmental accountability and openness, over that meeting with Brown–and two other illegal meetings last September…


FAC Sues City Over Emails…

A new suit filed by the First Amendment Coalition claims that city officials’ emails about government business are public records even though they were sent or received on the officials’ personal email accounts.

The suit, against the city of Auburn and Auburn’s City Council, also challenges the city’s policy–similar to that of many California cities and counties– of deleting most government emails shortly after they are received, regardless of their status under the Public Records Act. The suit was filed June 1 in Placer County Superior Court.

FAC is joined in the case by Victoria Connolly, an Auburn resident and community activist. She and FAC submitted public record requests for emails to and among Auburn Council members dealing with a local ballot initiative to convert Auburn to a “charter city.” The locally controversial ballot issue was defeated in last week’s elections. (The measure was opposed by Ms. Connolly; FAC took no position on the charter city question).

Karl Olson, the attorney representing both FAC and Connolly, said the public has a right to see council members’ emails about Auburn city business. “When city officials discuss or conduct city business, the writings should be open regardless of whose computer they use or what email account they use,” Olson said.

During the period covered by the record requests, the city’s website listed the council members’ personal emails as the addresses to use for communicating with the City Council members on government business.

“It’s undisputed that council members’ emails on government business, when sent from a dot-gov email account, are subject to the Public Records Act,” said FAC executive director Peter Scheer. “If council members could avoid the disclosure law simply by switching to a gmail or similar personal email account, their most important communications would evade public accountability,” Scheer said.

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Demi Moore’s Contribution to 911 Secrecy

See how bad FOI ideas get started? Just mix one opportunistic politician, one troubled celebrity…and voila!

English: Demi Moore at Time 100 Gala

Image via Wikipedia

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A Nice Look at the Secrecy Epidemic In California…

A former student, Brian Joseph, with a nice look at secrecy in California:

Critics of California’s in-home supportive services program believe there may be scores of people like Joowan Kim.

In February, Kim pled guilty to fraud and is serving three years probation for cheating the program out of $33,345. For nearly two years, Kim claimed to be caring for her developmentally-disabled son in Cypress when in truth he was living at a facility in Buena Park.

Many believe in-home supportive services, which permits family members to become the paid, in-home caregivers of sick and elderly relatives, is rife with this sort of abuse. But the public may never know if it’s really a problem because all caregiver records are secret under state law. Independent review is impossible. Fraud, potentially, is concealed.

This is how it is in the Golden State. Secrecy has seeped into every corner of state government, making it difficult to gauge Sacramento’s effectiveness and discretion. An Orange County Register review of the Government Code found at least 500 provisions that exempt specific records or information from public disclosure while another 16 code sections prohibit the release of broad categories of documents, including every complaint filed with a licensing body or investigatory agency, all communications with members of the Legislature and any document whose release does not serve the public interest. Official secrets are held in every office and department in state government, from food and agriculture, public health and the DMV to corrections, social services and the Legislature, where the Assembly recently made headlines (and drew a lawsuit) over its refusal to release documents related to members’ current budgets.

Legislative Calendars: Why A State Secret?

Nice piece on access to legislative calendars. Why the secrecy?

No Access to Who California Lawmakers Are Meeting With…

An interesting story on access to calendar items…

Officials from San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed to U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner have thrown open their daily calendars, allowing insight into whom they choose to meet and how they fill their days doing the taxpayers’ business.

But in California’s state capital, even lawmakers willing to divulge their appointment schedules are barred from doing so — a remarkable thwarting of the public’s right to know, according to open-government experts across the country.

As previously reported, in late April, the rules committees governing the Assembly and Senate denied a request by the Bay Area News Group, the Associated Press and the First Amendment Coalition to reveal the appointment calendars of lawmakers and their key staffers. Citing the Legislative Open Records Act, the denial covered all lawmakers, including those who told reporters they were perfectly willing to reveal their meetings.

Since the denial, the Bay Area News Group has surveyed government watchdog groups, and gathered numerous examples at the local, state and federal level of elected officials who release their daily schedules. While it is easy to find such examples, it appears most often to be a matter of individual choice, because few agencies require disclosure. But public agencies that prohibit disclosure, as the California Legislature does, are virtually unheard of.

California Constitutional Provision Awaits Vote…

The California Senate has unanimously approved a constitutional amendment authored by Sen. Leland Yee, D-San Francisco, to ensure public bodies follow requirements to post agendas and to disclose any actions taken.

If approved by two-thirds of the Assembly, Senate Constitutional Amendment 7 would go before voters during the next statewide ballot.

SCA 7 comes after years in which fundamentally important provisions of the Ralph M. Brown Act – the state’s main open government law – have been suspended or threatened during state fiscal crisis, Mr. Yee says.

Under existing law, local governments receive reimbursement for the cost of fulfilling statutory requirements enacted by the Legislature, however when the voters approve such a law, no state reimbursement is necessary. Such would be the case under SCA 7.

Despite open government advocates arguments that there are no significant costs that should be reimbursable by the state for simply posting a single copy of an agenda in a publicly accessible location and reporting action taken in closed session, the Commission on State Mandates has reimbursed local agencies about $20 million annually.

Because of this long history of bloated and unjustifiable charges to the state, says Mr. Yee, the Legislature and the Governor suspended the Brown Act for a period of time in 1991 and the public’s rights continue to be threatened every time there is a budget shortfall.

Last year, the Brown Act was not funded in the state budget, which has created confusion about whether or not public bodies currently need to follow the agenda posting and reporting laws.

Sacramento pension data public, court says

The pensions of retirees from Sacramento County government are a matter of public record and cannot be kept secret, the California Third District Court of Appeal says.

The Sacramento Bee newspaper had sought the records of individual retirees who were getting pensions of over $100,000 annually as part of its investigation into controversial retirement practices such as cashing out of vacation time or working overtime in the last year of employment, either of which can result in so-called “pension spiking;” instances of “double dipping,” where a person receives a pension and salary; instances of “triple dipping,” where a person receives a pension, salary and unemployment benefits in one year, and other pension practices.

When the Sacramento County Employees’ Retirement System offered a list of 221 “retiree amounts” exceeding $8,333 per month but not the names, dates of retirement or last employed position of those retirees, contending it could withhold that data, the Bee sued.

A California Bill Would Speed Access to Court Records

Passing along from the First Amendment Law Prof Blog:

State Senator Leland Yee has recently filed the Court Transparency Bill, SB 326,  which would require state courts to make newly filed court records available for public inspection no later than the end of the day on which those record were received by the court.  The bill’s   proponents, which include by the California Newspaper Publishers Association, Courthouse News Service, the First Amendment Coalition, and Californians Aware, assert that  delays in access to filed documents are widespread. Journalists have underscored that such delays take on greater  significance in a media environment with constantly accelerating news cycles.  State court officials have countered that resource constraints in a time of budget crisis impede granting speedier access to newly filed material.  Courthouse New Service, one of the media entities, pressing for enactment of the bill provides further information about the controversy.