By Brandon Combs
Senate Bill 71, a budget trailer bill, is possibly the single greatest threat to government accountability in California today. In it are amendments to the California Public Records Act (CPRA) that would make it exceedingly difficult, if not impossible, to find out if our government is functioning in accordance with the law. That's why we're asking you to help us urge Governor Brown to veto the SB 71 CPRA amendments by sending a message through the Firearms Policy Coalition form today.
The Calguns Foundation has long been interested in public records and transparency dating back to our founding. We and our members know all too well how secrecy in government creates opportunities for law-abiding people to be treated unfairly.
For example, our Carry License Sunshine and Compliance Initiative is one major program of ours that's had a positive effect for the people of California. In 2011, we discovered through public records requests that San Francisco's then-Sheriff Michael Hennessey not only ignored a longstanding state law that required him to have and publish a handgun carry license policy, but issued a license to his own lawyer while denying every other request for years. CGF subsequently forced the sheriff to adopt a carry license policy -- a first for his department.
CGF PR in re SF policy: http://www.
In 1986, the California Supreme Court issued a major public records decision (CBS, Inc. v. Block) on the very same handgun carry license records and agency policies that we are addressing today in our Carry License Sunshine and Compliance Initiative. Former Chief Justice Rose Bird wrote in the decision that "[d]isclosure statutes such as the PRA and the federal Freedom of Information Act were passed to ensure public access to vital information about the government's conduct of its business. If the press and the public are precluded from learning the names of concealed weapons' licensees and the reasons claimed in support of the licenses, there will be no method by which the public can ascertain whether the law is being properly applied or carried out in an evenhanded manner."
The records we gather through Public Records Act requests enable us to objectively evaluate how each agency is operating and determine when, how, and sometimes why they treat similarly-situated Californians differently.
Our Sunshine Initiative is very dependent on our ability to utilize and enforce the California Public Records Act and the constitutional right of access to public records. In October of 2010 we had to sue Ventura County and then-Sheriff Bob Brooks because they unlawfully withheld critical public records from us. Our lawsuit asked the court to compel the county to release the records to us in a timely manner. In July, 2011, the court agreed with us and issued a decisiongranting our request for the records and payment of our attorney's fees.
Based on data gathered through CPRA requests, The Calguns Foundation published the most detailed and comprehensive analysis on California handgun carry license issuance in history. However, the California Legislature's SB 71 CPRA amendments would virtually ensure that our Sunshine Initiative is gutted and that our 2011 report is the last of its kind. If the Legislature wants to promote government corruption, political horse-trading, and disparate treatment of good, law-abiding Californians, their SB 71 CPRA amendments are one sure way to do it. What the Legislature is really saying with the SB 71 CPRA amendments is that they -- and the local governments that support them -- are going to make our holding them accountable as difficult as possible, if not a virtual impossibility in some cases.
Proponents of the SB 71 CPRA amendments claim that transparency costs them too much money -- but how much does government corruption cost? Perhaps they -- and we -- should look to the small city of Bell, California, where a strong and enforceable CPRA was key to exposing the theft of over $6 Million in taxpayer dollars by Bell city officials.
Since we started our Carry License Initiative, CGF has had the great pleasure of supporting and, where possible, collaborating with fantastic open government groups like the First Amendment Coalition and CalAware on matters relating to public records and meetings. We're also proud to be working with Electronic Frontier Foundation on some very exciting efforts we can all agree on. CGF has a new and unique constitutional case on public records and the right of access to them in the pipeline and I'm optimistic that we'll be joined in the lawsuit by open government advocates like First Amendment Coalition and the ACLU.
There's a very special and positive nexus between civil rights groups like ours and advocates for government transparency. I'm very confident that CGF will continue to have an excellent relationship with our friends working on open government and free speech. If individual liberty and accountability in government are to survive, we're all going to have to set minor policy disagreements aside and work cooperatively to ensure that laws such as California's Public Records Act have real teeth.