The timing of Sunday's Page 1A story on pension costs to taxpayers is pure coincidence. It was in the works for months and just happened to be ready now. But what a perfect coda to a week that saw an outrageous attempt in Sacramento to gut the California Public Records Act.
The immediate crisis has been averted, thanks to a public backlash. But this isn't over. A constitutional amendment affecting the act has been proposed, and it needs careful scrutiny.
The Public Records Act requires that information like the compensation figures in the pensions story be made public in a timely fashion when an organization or individual requests it. The offensive legislation wedged into a lengthy budget trailer bill was aimed at getting the state off the hook for the costs of local compliance, which would lower the budget by 0.02 percent.
To do this, Gov. Jerry Brown and the Legislature -- particularly the Senate -- were willing to cut local officials some slack on transparency.
The bill they passed still encouraged compliance with the Public Records Act. But, for example, instead of having to respond within 10 days to a request, local agencies could respond -- oh, whenever. Or they could deny the request without having to say why, as they're required to do now.
On Friday, state Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg told our editorial board that it was all a mistake. He said the only motivation had been to eliminate the reimbursement for local costs, which has been suspended for a decade anyway. He clearly hadn't expected the backlash from media and good government organizations, though it's hard to see how somebody as smart as Steinberg would fail to see that coming. Same for Brown.
Fortunately, the Assembly, led by Speaker John Perez, passed legislation Thursday rescinding the offensive provision. The Senate plans to do the same Monday, and the governor has said he'll sign the bill.
Crisis averted. But that constitutional amendment looms.
Steinberg, Brown and others are proposing it to enshrine the Public Records Act in the constitution while also making it clear that local governments should pay their own costs of compliance. It could end up as a win for public access, but after last week's near-debacle, we are naturally leery. And it's looking like a rush job, heading to a committee hearing as early as Tuesday.
The news story on pension subsidies is an example of how the Public Records Act can be used to gather information that can be analyzed and presented to the public in an understandable way. The broad take-away is that, while public employees are supposed to pay part of the cost of their pensions, many cities, counties and other agencies pay the employee share with public dollars.
In the economic downturn, these costs forced cuts in other parts of many city, county and district budgets. It's another indication that pension reform has yet to take hold, even though it's clear the costs are not sustainable.
This investigation was done by Bay Area News Group investigative reporter and Watchdog columnist Thomas Peele. He estimates that among the countless public record requests he's made over the years, only about half were granted without at least some follow-up, if not a lawsuit. Voters will need to be wary of anything that might make it even harder to find out what's going on.
The reaction to last week's assault on the Public Records Act has reminded lawmakers how highly people value the right to information. But it's important to stay vigilant as a constitutional amendment is crafted. Given the rush, let's not even blink.