Proposition 59 creates a constitutional right for Californians to know what their governments are up to. This amendment has been in the legislative process for nearly three years and in that time it has been tinkered with, fine-tuned and, some would say, watered down until hardly anyone objects. Free press advocates like the California First Amendment Coalition and the League of California Cities bicker constantly about public information issues.
But once in a blue moon, the strife leads to meaningful reform. One of those moments of agreement came when the Legislature passed The Ralph M. Brown Act. This law requires, with a few exceptions, that local boards and commissions meet in public. It has enormously improved open government and democratic participation in California.
We see Proposition 59 as another of those historic agreements.
As good as the Brown Act, the Public Records Act and other state laws are, they have not stopped widespread secrecy in government.
The California First Amendment Coalition cites these examples:
"Even a state senator using the Public Records Act was unable to obtain Department of Insurance records documenting how Insurance Commissioner Chuck Quackenbush was regulating insurance companies after the devastating Loma Prieta earthquake. Quackenbush was forced to resign, but it was a 'leak,' not the Public Records Act, that produced the evidence."
CFAC officials go on: "Local government bodies have used closed sessions to direct staff not to provide information to one of their elected members; … to hear a police chief's report on the backgrounds of critics of his department; to act on matters not listed on the agenda or listed only as "discussion" items; and to meet with the body's attorney to discuss "procedure" for passing a controversial resolution."
What Proposition 59 does do is raise the right to know about government to constitutional status. It also require judges and officials to specifically and publicly say what other rights they are protecting when they close off access to government meetings and public records.
Often the right that public access might trample is personal privacy. Proposition 59 specifically protects the constitutional privacy of ordinary citizens and reaffirms existing case law in this area.
The debate over this amendment has created a sensible improvement in the law of the land. Now it's time to give ourselves a right to know about government, a right to know what we're talking about when we vote, sign petitions and write letters to the editor.
We urge a yes vote on Proposition 59.
- Lodi News-Sentinel