Doing absolutely nothing to help their already dismal public approval ratings, the state Assembly has refused requests--submitted under the Legislative Open Records Act--to release records of legislators' 2010 and 2011 budgets (money given to rank and file legislators by the leadership) and expenditures. Now The Sacramento Bee and Los Angeles Times are suing to obtain those records.
The newspapers argue that the budget and spending records document public resources used for public business, and should be released based on a constitutional right to access information about government activities.
The Assembly Rules Committee, on the other hand, claims that it need not release those documents because the records fall under exceptions to the Legislative Open Records Act for "correspondence of and to individual members of the Legislature and their staff," and "preliminary drafts, notes or legislative memoranda." An Assembly administrator has argued that the records of lawmakers' current budgets and spending could contain confidential personnel information. Basically, the Assembly Rules Committee claims that those documents, which detail use of public funds by public officials, are privileged.
This all started when termed-out Assemblyman Anthony Portatino (D - La Canada Flintridge) claimed that Assembly Speaker John Perez (D - Los Angeles) punished him--for being the only Democrat to vote against this year's budget--by cutting his budget. Perez has denied those charges and asserted that Portantino was a wasteful spender. Portantino requested the budget and expenditure records, claiming that they rebutted Perez's charges of reckless spending.
The latest argument raises broader questions about the public's right to information concerning their elected officials. Let's be clear about what is being asked for here. The requests do not seek information about lawmakers' private lives, rather, the requests ask public servants--elected by the public, to serve the public, with public money--to account for their budgets and spending. If there is truly confidential information that should not be disclosed, we should determine whether that information can be redacted and the rest of the information should be disclosed.
It is time to reevaluate the Legislative Open Records Act, both in what it says and how it operates. For instance, in yet another disheartening example of the fox guarding the hen house, the rules committee for each legislative house judges whether legislative records must be disclosed.
Jessica Levinson writes about the intersection of law and government every Monday. She is a Visiting Professor at Loyola Law School.