Public records ombudsperson bill clears its first hurdle

A bill that would allow requesters whose California Public Records Act requests have been denied by state agencies the option to use an administrative appeal process passed out of its first committee last week.

Assemblymember Vince Fong’s (R-Bakersfield) AB 289 would establish the California Public Records Act Ombudsperson within the State Auditor’s Office. The ombudsperson would receive requests for review from members of the public who believe that a state agency improperly denied their public records request. Requesters would still have the ability to bring a legal action to enforce their rights under the CPRA, the bill would simply provide requesters the additional option of seeking review by the ombudsperson before filing a lawsuit.

Assemblymember Fong’s intent in bringing the bill is to provide an avenue for requesters for whom it may not be feasible to file a lawsuit to have their denied requests reviewed by an independent referee. In this way, Assemblymember Fong believes the bill would increase transparency, fairness, and accountability.

CNPA attended the hearing in the Assembly Committee on Accountability and Administrative Review and expressed support for the concept underlying AB 289, but suggested that for the bill to be most effective it should be expanded to apply to requests denied by local agencies. In addition, CNPA recommended that the ombudsperson publish written opinions in the cases decided so that other requesters and public agencies could use those opinions to interpret the CPRA.

AB 289 will next be heard by the Assembly Judiciary Committee on April 23.