Ben Hueso
Ben Hueso. Courtesy of his office

Sen. Ben Hueso, D-San Diego, Tuesday withdrew legislation that would have gutted the enforcement of the California Public Records Act after a backlash from media members, government transparency advocates and local public officials.

Hueso’s bill, drafted last month at the behest of San Diego City Attorney Mara Elliott, would have made it harder for members of the public to sue government agencies for not complying with the CPRA, which is generally the most effective way of ensuring those agencies stay transparent and fulfill requests for public records.

Under the bill, members of the public or entities seeking public records would have had to establish that a government agency or agencies willfully ignored the request without a legitimate reason before taking such agencies to court.

The bill’s opponents swiftly framed the bill as setting a nigh impossible standard that, consequently, would aid government cover-ups and attempts to stonewall the public.

“From the outset, my objective for this bill was always to make the process of obtaining public records more efficient and expedient for taxpayers,” Hueso said in a statement. “The Public Records Act is an essential component of California’s strong commitment to open government and transparency, of which I’ve always been an ardent supporter.”

Elliott’s reasoning for supporting the bill was that fulfilling requests has become a burden on local agencies due to the rising number of requests, which spiked from 749 in 2012 to just shy of 5,000 last year.

According to reporting by Voice of San Diego, some of that increase is due to the city’s implementation of an online system to facilitate requests and includes minor requests such as residents seeking a printout of a City Council agenda.

Elliott also suggested that taxpayers often foot the bill for drawn-out legal battles over public records, money that could instead be used to tackle issues like homelessness and services for vulnerable communities.

“I believe our elected leaders have an obligation to tackle tough issues and advance thoughtful solutions to the serious challenges facing our city and its taxpayers,” Elliott said after Hueso’s announcement. “But I also believe that listening goes hand in hand with leadership, and I’m committed to working with stakeholders to make it easier for ordinary people to access public records while reducing expensive and unnecessary lawsuits.”

The straw that seems to have broken the bill’s back is unanimous opposition from the San Diego City Council and Mayor Kevin Faulconer. Council members Chris Cate and Vivian Moreno issued a memo Monday stating their opposition.

The council subsequently included a vote to oppose bills that undermine the CPRA in a package of its annual state and federal legislative priorities. Several council members also chided the city attorney’s office for circumventing the council, even if Elliott’s office had no legal compulsion to consult them first.

“It’s always putting us in an awkward position when we read about something like this in the paper, Voice of San Diego or whatnot, and when it’s sponsored by the city attorney it kind of gives the impression that the city is behind it,” said Councilman Mark Kersey. “We have a legislative platform specifically so that we can put forth the city’s legislative priorities.”

Whether Elliott and Hueso will attempt to make further tweaks to the CPRA remains to be seen.

— City News Service