Despite opposition from the state’s secrecy lobby, legislation that would establish a penalty for agencies that violate the California Public Records Act, flew out of committee with bipartisan support on Tuesday.
CNPA testified alongside the ACLU in support of AB 1479, describing a chief complaint from newspaper members that the CPRA is toothless. AB 1479 seeks to give the Act some bite, allowing a requester who sues an agency to also allege that the agency acted improperly in withholding records. The bill would make an agency that charges unauthorized fees, unreasonably delays production, or fails to respond to a request subject to the penalty. The bill would allow a judge to impose a fine of $1,000 to $5,000 for such unlawful behavior.
Assemblymember Rob Bonta (D-Alameda) is championing AB 1479 following several high profile public records disputes in the Bay Area, including: the delayed disclosure of records related to the Ghost Ship Fire and the unauthorized fees assessed for a department to review and redact records.
Other legislators spoke up during the hearing to express their own frustrations with the CPRA. Assemblymembers Brian Maienshein (R-San Diego) and Cristina Garcia (D-Bell Gardens) said that they have both had trouble getting information under the Act from their local agencies and said they supported this incremental step to further encourage compliance.
Coincidentally, on the afternoon of the hearing, the ACLU filed a lawsuit against the LAPD for systemic violations of the CPRA. The LAPD’s actions represent just one example of the failures of agencies across the state to comply with the spirit and letter of the CPRA. The Judiciary Committee analysis of AB 1479 highlighted several other recent examples.
Despite evidence to the contrary, agency advocates argued that the bill was unnecessary and would do little to incentivize agencies to comply with the CPRA. Additionally, they disputed some technical aspects of the bill, which are intended to create a point of contact within an agency to permit a requester to informally appeal a denial or delay with a designated “custodian” of records. The special districts argued that this would only serve to delay responses to requests.
The Assembly Judiciary Committee approved the bill by an 11-0 vote. The measure will next be reviewed by the Appropriations Committee, and if passed, will move to the Assembly Floor by the end of May. CNPA urges members to watch this bill as it moves through the Legislature, and to editorialize in support of AB 1479.