Barry Allen has years of experience requesting public documents from local governments. He civic watchdog group is worried about the fate of the state's Public Records Act.
A proposed constitutional amendment on California's June primary ballot could shift the cost of complying with public records requests, which now rests with the state, to the local agencies that get the document requests.
The legislature voted Tuesday to put the proposal on the ballot.
Barry Allen isn't all that impressed. He and members of his civic watchdog group, The Vanguardians, make lots of document requests under the California Public Records Act.
"Actually, we made one to the city of Bell for all of their compensation records, before the L.A. Times did," Allen said.
The city of Bell stonewalled, Allen says. When records finally surfaced showing officials were massively overpaid, several were charged with crimes. That's the power of the Public Records Act.
But Allen worries the law does not go far enough to truly help the public.
"Certainly, I would say we should vote for it," he says. "However, there are many other issues, when the city can charge whatever they want [for documents]. And that's a problem."
Public agencies vary widely in the amount they charge for public documents.
Californians' access to public records was threatened earlier this year during a budget battle in the legislature.
Acting on a money-saving proposal by Gov. Jerry Brown, the legislature decided to stop reimbursing local governments for their costs of complying with public record requests. Under the state constitution, local agencies don't have to carry out state mandates without state reimbursement.
After a public outcry, the legislature rescinded the rule.
For a more permanent solution intended to achieve both local compliance and state savings, the legislature put a constitutional amendment on the June ballot that requires local agencies to comply with the state's public records act at their own expense.
Sen. Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) said cities would be compelled to produce public documents and could not use the lack of state reimbursement to deny requests.
The League of California Cities objects, saying the new law is too costly. The group also notes that one influential group — the state legislature — would continue to be excluded from the provisions of the public records law.