Now that the pitched fight over the Public Records Act is over and the law preserved, one might wonder why Gov. Jerry Brown, Sen. President Darrell Steinberg and Sen. Mark Leno started such a mess in the first place.
Given Brown's career opaqueness, it's not surprising that he tried to turn the lights out on local government. Because once cities and counties could go dark, the next logical step would be state agencies and claims that California couldn't afford their transparency, either.
The supposed cost reductions by stopping reimbursement to the locals for PRA-related costs fluctuated, but $20 million seems a good discussion point. Pennies under the couch cushions, really. Budget dust.
Make no mistake. Brown's plan was about nothing other than making it more difficult to obtain records and hold government accountable. That Leno, D-San Francisco, a one-time supporter of open government, went along with this and claimed that nothing would really change, that people could still attain access without the hammer of the law, was pathetic.
Jim Ewert of the California Newspaper Publishers Association used the most accurate word possible to describe what was going on. Brown was out to "eviscerate" the Public Records Act. The governor's handmaidens, Steinberg, D-Sacramento, and Leno, fell in line.
Don't worry, they claimed, making a law a "recommended best practice" wouldn't change anything. If you believed that Pollyanna gibberish, I have the deed to the new Bay Bridge right here and will entertain bids, broken bolts and other issued exposed by public records included.
The Public Records Act is already a weak, loophole-ridden law. The saddest part in this melodrama is that we are only back to even. The evisceration didn't happen. But the lack of robustness that remains is appalling. The dirty truth is that no one in government has to give you anything they don't want to.
Push them, as I often do, and you get called a bully. Sue them and they will bury you in paper. Write about them and you are presenting only one side.
Of course, pursuit of government probing is best served by adversarial dealings. We, at least I, am not here to play patty-cake. But it's not like the public and journalists have much in the way of weapons. Yet, rather than working to strengthen the law and reduce the ludicrous exemptions that bureaucrats and their lawyers can claim to keep their secrets, energies were expended just to preserve the status quo.
The only Democrat to challenge Brown and tell the truth was Sen. Leland Yee, D-San Francisco, who later got reamed by Steinberg for his intellectual honesty. Leno, I am told, also ripped into open-government advocates for their criticism.
The law that they attacked on Brown's behalf has helped expose the Bell scandal, teacher sex abuse, and thousands of public dollars spent in a Houston strip club by Port of Oakland officials.
Still, PRA requests can often be a mess, especially when officials are steeped in the twin demons of ignorance and arrogance. Examples abound.
Let's start with Hercules City Manager's Steven Duran's response to a request for salary data last year. "The City is not required to perform a research project," he wrote. He somehow thought that line met the act's requirements that a determination about a request -- what records a government has and how they will be released -- be given to the requester within 10 days. Hercules finally coughed up payroll records months later.
Then there's Cordilia Fire Department Chief Jay Huyssoon, who responded with this little ditty when asked for the salary data: "I am not familiar with any law that states I must give sensitive information to a group of individuals who may be terrorist in nature or scam artists." His department has ignored three years of requests for compensation records.
And that's what happens to a reporter, one who deals with the law on a daily basis and files hundreds of requests a year. The experience of people far less versed in this than I am is much worse when they dare to ask their government for hard and fast records.
In the midst of all the Sacramento hoopla, I spoke with Mary Williams, an Orville resident who last year had the audacity to request salary records from a parks district. She got shot down repeatedly and eventually asked me for advice. I recommended a lawyer, and after a few more months, Williams finally got what she wanted.
"It's hard enough as it is to get records. I would hate to see the Legislature make it worse," she said. "I had to hire an attorney and pay out of pocket. The public shouldn't have to do that. They just kept saying no."
No. If it had been left up to Jerry Brown, would have been the new yes.
Thomas Peele is an investigative reporter for this newspaper and teaches public records at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him at Twitter.com/thomas_peele.