Open Government Reform Bill Fails in California

California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger refused to sign a bill, S.B. 964, that would have added some teeth to California's open records law and closed a significant loophole in the state's open meetings law which allows local government officials to hold discussions without public scrutiny through serial communications, such as e-mail, telephone, or intermediaries, provided the discussions do not result in a "collective concurrence" as to actions to be taken.

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press reported on the bill's failure yesterday and provides some additional background on the legislation, noting that "the measure had been eviscerated well before it ever reached the governor's desk." According to the Reporters Committee:

In its final form, S.B. 964 would have prohibited a majority of the members of a local agency's legislative body from discussing, deliberating upon or taking action on matters within its jurisdiction when the communications were not open to the public and were otherwise required by law to be so.

Tom Newton, general counsel for the California Newspaper Publishers Association and a lead supporter of the bill, said the original version of S.B. 964 had included a provision that would have authorized the state attorney general's office to review rejected open records requests. The original version would also have permitted a court to assess penalties upon a state or local agency in addition to legal fees if the court found the agency had acted in bad faith in denying a public records act request, Newton said.

In refusing to sign the bill, Schwarzenegger issued a written statement on October 5 in which he conceded the need for reform, but took exception with the bill before him:

It is of the utmost importance to ensure openness and transparency of local government decision making. . . . In its attempt to solve the issue, this bill imposes an impractical standard for compliance on local officials and could potentially prohibit communication among officials and agency staff outside of a public meeting.

Tom Newton, general counsel for the California Newspaper Publishers Association, told the Reporters Committee that he expected the bill, complete with the attorney general and bad faith penalty provisions, to be introduced again next year.


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