Attorney General and Lawmaker Put Records Act Bill on Slow Track

Stung
by a unanimous stream of criticism from the state’s top three press and
constitutional rights organizations, lawyers for the state Attorney
General’s office said they have placed a bill aimed at addressing
abusers of the state’s Public Records Act on a legislative “slow track”
while they give the issue further study.

The bill, AB 520, was authored by Assemblywoman Wilmer Amina Carter (D-Rialto)
and had been officially sponsored by Attorney General Jerry Brown. If
enacted as written, the legislation would allow governmental
institutions and agencies to seek out court orders against individuals
whom they have deemed to be abusing or harassing the given institution
or agency through improper or “vexatious” records act requests.

The legislation was scheduled to be heard by the Assembly’s Judiciary Committee on Tuesday.

Officials with the California Newspaper Publishers Association, the California First Amendment Coalition and Californians Aware all
filed protests against the proposed law, saying it would have a
chilling effect on the legal rights of Californians to monitor the
operations of local and statewide government. Those same officials
added that if a court finds the requester has made a request for “an
improper purpose,” it could limit or eliminate an agency’s duty to
respond to requests in the future.

Deputy
Attorney General Marc Le Forestier, supervisor of the office’s
legislative affairs unit, said AB 520 has been re-classified as a
“two-year” cycle bill. Under that designation the bill be kept in a
legislative “holding” area and not acted upon. The Attorney General’s
office and Carter, however, have until the end of the year to decide
whether to revive the legislation for consideration in 2010 or let it
die outright.

“We
believe that abuse of the Act continues to be a real problem that needs
resolution,” Le Forestier said. “At this point, however, we need to
study the legislation further.”

Le
Forestier said previously that examples of Record Act abuse does
exists. He said in one case a man filed a records act request that
ended up with the agency involved making copies of 20,000 documents.
When the agency was ready to release the documents the man never showed
up to pick them up. Another case of seeming abuse involved a person who
made 174 separate requests of one agency over the course of a year. He
declined to name the requestors or the agencies involved, citing
attorney-client confidentiality.

Terry Francke, general counsel of CalAware, applauded the decision by the Attorney General’s office and Carter.

“[We believe] that it was a wise second thought by the sponsor and the author,” Francke said.

Carter’s
press secretary did not respond to an e-mail request for comment on the
bill Tuesday. The lawmaker, however, said last week that she only
sponsored AB 520 as a “courtesy” to the Attorney General’s office and
that she would drop the bill outright if support from media industry
and constitutional rights groups could not be obtained.

Follow Jeff Mitchell’s political blog at BAPolitix.org