Group proposes constitutional amendment to help public records requests

By Jim Wasserman The Associated Press
Thursday December 20, 2001

SACRAMENTO — Californians seeking records, documents and other information that public agencies keep secret may get new help next year. 

Advocates for open government are considering a constitutional amendment to make cities, counties and other agencies explain why providing documents would create a bigger problem. 

Sen. John Burton, D-San Francisco, said he will carry a bill to place the question on the November 2002 ballot. There it would require a two-thirds majority to pass. 

“I think the burden should be on the agencies to explain why they keep this stuff secret,” Burton said. 

California’s 13-year-old First Amendment Coalition, a group of newspaper publishers, attorneys and citizen advocates, wants to make it harder for government agencies to simply say no. 

“That’s often a knee-jerk response you get from an agency the first time you request something,” said Richard McKee, a Pasadena City College chemistry professor and coalition president. “If you show them you have knowledge of the law, they become a little more careful. But they know the only way you can get at them is to sue.” 

McKee has successfully sued several Southern California agencies to get previously refused documents on legal settlements and public spending issues. 

Florida already has such a constitutional amendment, said Terry Francke, the coalition’s attorney. 

Francke said the constitutional change won’t provide a specific list of what citizens, reporters and other public officials can and can’t see. Instead, he said, it makes public agencies explain in detail why making the documents public would endanger some private or public interest. 

“This doesn’t automatically make anything public that used to be confidential,” he said. “It simply would require the government to make a clear and convincing explanation of why secrecy is required in a given case.” 

Coalition director Kent Pollock said he thinks the amendment will make government better. 

“I think it means government will be able to conduct itself more effectively when people are participating and bringing scrutiny to the process. That is a valuable thing that public officials don’t acknowledge.”