Open government constitutional amendment passes first test

By Steve Lawrence, The Associated Press
Wednesday May 22, 2002

SACRAMENTO — A constitutional amendment to bolster California’s open government requirements passed its first test Tuesday, but supporters said it was still only a “semi-work in progress” that would be reshaped as it moves through the Legislature. 

“There’s some work left to be done on this important bill,” Tom Newton, general counsel for the California Newspaper Publishers Association, said before the Senate Governmental Organization Committee approved the amendment, 8-0. 

The measure, by Senate President Pro Tem John Burton, D-San Francisco, would put into the constitution the stipulation that the public has a fundamental right to attend government meetings and inspect government records, with some exceptions. 

California has a series of open government laws already on the books, but supporters of the amendment say those statutes have been eroded over the years by court decisions and efforts by government officials to block access to records. 

Putting an open records, open meeting requirement in the constitution will strengthen those protections, they say. 

Among other things, amendment supporters cite state Supreme Court decisions that allow: 

— Public officials to withhold documents showing how they reached — and who influenced — their decisions. 

— Lower courts to bar future violations of open meeting laws but not to find that a previous meeting violated those requirements. Critics say the ruling weakens citizens’ ability to reverse decisions made during illegally closed meetings. 

“Specific decisions, we believe, have put a kind of body blow on the Public Records Act,” said Mel Opotowsky, former managing editor of The Press-Enterprise of Riverside. 

Opponents said the amendment was too loosely drafted and would jeopardize current exceptions to open records and open meeting requirements. 

“We’re thinking this is going to open the door to a lot of litigation, that every exemption is going to be challenged in a court of law,” said Amy Brown, a lobbyist for the League of California Cities. 

William Brieger, a representative of the attorney general’s office, said efforts to protect the names of crime witnesses or keep private conversations with a priest or rape counselor could be blocked by the amendment. 

“Reading the measure that’s currently drafted, it’s not clear what can be withheld at all,” he said. 

Lenny Goldberg, a lobbyist for the Privacy Rights Clearing House, suggested the Legislature should consider strengthening current open government laws instead of amending the constitution. 

“We have questions as to when you start getting to this level of detail why this should be a constitutional amendment,” he said. 

Opotowsky said the amendment would allow the Legislature to enact exceptions. “This is not something that is Ice Age freezing things as they are right now,” he said. 

The vote sent the measure to the Constitutional Amendments Committee.