Bills of 2023 | Mixed results for pair of bills affecting public access

Publlic access advocates were divided on two bills that reached the governor’s desk in 2023 — and the results on them were divided, too, as one was signed and one was vetoed. Illustration by Miguel Gutierrez Jr., CalMatters
Publlic access advocates were divided on two bills that reached the governor’s desk in 2023 — and the results on them were divided, too, as one was signed and one was vetoed. Illustration by Miguel Gutierrez Jr., CalMatters
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Editor’s note: As 2023 draws to a close, The Signal is presenting CalMatters’ wrap-up stories on some of the key bills that reached the governor’s desk at the close of the 2023 legislative session. Here’s the CalMatters summary of a pair of bills affecting public access to California government. 

By Sameea Kamal 
CalMatters Writer 

In a mixed bag for public access legislation, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a bill promoting remote government meetings, but vetoed a bill that was designed to make it more difficult for government agencies to deny public records requests. 

Assembly Bill 469, which Newsom vetoed, would have created an ombudsperson’s office to review state agencies’ denials of public records requests. The Legislature would have to fund the office, and it would expire on Jan. 1, 2027, unless lawmakers extend it.  

After late amendments, the ombudsperson would be independent and appointed by the governor, not part of the state auditor’s office. Another amendment removed the requirement that someone who requests records be reimbursed if the ombudsperson decides they were improperly denied. This is the third try for this measure, and the first time it reached the governor’s desk. 

Senate Bill 544, which Newsom signed, reinstates some flexibility for remote meetings for state boards and commissions started during the COVID-19 pandemic and in place until year’s end. The bill removes requirements to notify the public of all teleconference locations, post agendas at each location and make those locations accessible to the public.  

Instead, boards would only be required to post the physical address for one site, and only one board member or staff member would have to be physically present at that site. The bill was amended to exclude advisory boards that don’t have decision-making authorities. It sunsets in 2026. 

Who Supports Them 

AB 469 is supported by the California News Publishers Association, California Broadcasters Association and other press groups, as well as the California Association of Licensed Investigators and Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association.  

The bill’s author, Republican Assemblymember Vince Fong of Bakersfield, argues that state agencies deny public record requests for “irrelevant and inappropriate” reasons and that people have no right to appeal, other than costly lawsuits.  

SB 544 is backed by the California Commission on Aging, which sponsored the bill, along with other state boards and commissions.  

Sen. John Laird, a Democrat from Santa Cruz who authored the bill, cites privacy concerns with posting the home addresses of those who serve on state boards and commissions. He also argues that remote meetings expand participation. 

Who Is Opposed  

While not an official opponent of AB 469, the First Amendment Coalition says it is concerned that the bill allows, and even encourages, state agencies to appeal the ombudsperson’s decisions and potentially drag people who requested the records into court. 

SB 544 is opposed by the First Amendment Coalition, the California Newspaper Publishers Association and the American Chemistry Council, who say Californians should be able to address their government officials in person.  

Why They Matter 

Public and press access to elected officials and state bureaucrats narrowed dramatically during the pandemic and hasn’t been fully restored. 

These bills are a mixed bag: AB 469 would give reporters and average Joes and Jills a better chance of securing public records. But SB 544 concerns advocates, who say that relying on remote meetings allows public officials to skirt accountability. 

The Governor’s Call  

Newsom announced on Sept. 22 that he had signed SB 544, without any comments.  

Laird issued a statement: “Senate Bill 544 is a significant step forward in modernizing the Bagley-Keene Act to embrace the power of technology by fostering equity and enhancing public engagement, while also preserving public access to the decision-making process.” 

But Newsom announced on Oct. 7 he vetoed AB 469, saying it was unnecessary and could add to the state budget deficit.  

“This bill would create an unnecessary layer of review by an official who would interpret the law in a manner that may or may not be consistent with case law,” he said in his veto message. “Additionally, establishment of this office would result in tens of millions of dollars in cost pressures not considered in the annual budget process.” 

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