A few ideas in Gov. Jerry Brown’s recent budget proposal would be so damaging to the free flow of information in California that they should be scrapped immediately.
The first is a proposal to charge citizens $10 for virtually every record they look up at a county courthouse. Those records are currently free to access, and they are used by any number of people to ensure that information from legal filings comes to light. Journalists routinely browse through public records for information and background about matters that directly affect residents of cities, counties and the state.
When people sue governments, officials or businesses, major facts about possible malfeasance can be brought to light through the court records. But charging people just to access these records will significantly reduce the number of cases news organizations are able to cover. At many times, such records are the only information available during the legal process, since parties to a lawsuit often cannot talk about pending litigation. In addition to the search fee contemplated, the budget proposal also is asking for the cost of copying court records to increase from 50 cents per page to $1.
Yes, our state’s court system has lost more than $1 billion over four years, which has led to staff cuts, reduced services and courtroom closures.
But the budget balancing should not be done on the back of the public’s right to know. In fact, the economic plight of our court systems should prompt a serious reconsideration of California’s entire judicial and penal system.
If the proposed court fee would not be enough of a blow to the free flow of information in the state, two other cuts in the governor’s budget would be even worse, reducing access to public records.
When people want information from government agencies, they are able to file public-records requests. Existing rules dictate how soon government agencies must respond to these requests and how they should help members of the public understand how to reform their requests to gain access to the information they seek. Brown’s budget would strip away the mandate for agencies to offer such assistance and remove the prompt notification of denials to records.
The removal of these two mandates would make it much more difficult to access records that are now used to hold government employees and agencies accountable by finding such things as spending reports and officials’ communications. Officials can deny a request simply because it is not worded correctly. But as it stands now, a government agency needs to promptly inform the person making the request about the denial and help him or her revise it to find the information being sought. Under the governor’s proposal, people might not know for some time, if ever, that their requests had been denied. Then they would have no way of knowing what to do to fix their request and obtain the information they seek.
The trend in government — especially in the era of widespread Internet access — should be toward more information being publicly accessible.
Brown’s budget proposals are a move in the wrong direction, and every resident of this state would be worse off if they pass.