Howdy, This Here is the BS-Ranch, The Ranch looks after a small amount of land located in the Inland Empire, but we also take notice to Things that are going on in the Owens Valley. We Welcome to the Ranch Pasture, Barns, and Corrals! But, if your not minding your feet you will have a Smelly Mess to clean off your boots when you leave.. Have a good time I hope you enjoy Da' BS.Ranch!
Friday, November 19, 2010
Time to Be Transparent (by Cassie Macduff) Press Enterprise Column
The California Public Records Act has long been a journalist's best friend.
It spells out which government documents are open to the public and how government officials are to supply them on request.
But these days, it's not just reporters who are invoking the law, county spokespersons were told Wednesday during a workshop at the California State Association of Counties annual meeting in Riverside.
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Average citizens have learned to cite the Public Records Act when seeking official documents.
Law firms are using it to go on fishing expeditions to prepare lawsuits against government agencies.
Commercial companies are using it to compile lists of potential customers.
Political operatives are using it to dig up dirt on office-holders.
And then there are "the crazies" who use a shotgun approach, demanding voluminous records to ferret out suspected wrongdoing.
That's what county public information officers face these days when dealing with the law intended to make government transparent and hold public officials accountable.
In the wake of the Bell salary scandal, public officials shouldn't play hide-the-ball, stonewall or stall the release of records that are clearly public, the information officers were told by two San Bernardino County experts: Principal Assistant County Counsel Dan Haueter and Public Information Officer David Wert.
Wert, a former reporter, considers the act a public relations tool to inspire confidence in government and demonstrate transparency.
If public agencies respond to reporters' inquiries with stonewalling and lack of cooperation, a news story that might have been neutral or even positive can turn out to be negative, he said.
Wert said if he can e-mail a document to a reporter as soon as it's requested, he does. I wish all PIOs thought that way.
But all the good PR groundwork can be undone, Wert said, if a clerk at a counter has been instructed to withhold records or stall providing them, he said.
That's one reason San Bernardino County enacted a "sunshine ordinance" declaring all county records presumed public unless they meet a narrow definition as exempt from disclosure.
Of California counties, only San Francisco has a stronger sunshine ordinance, Haueter said: It requires the county's lawyers to advise the public on the Public Records Act rather than advising the Board of Supervisors.
Haueter acknowledged there are no real penalties for violating the act. The onus is on the public to take the government to court to force the release of records.
But if a judge finds information was wrongly withheld, the government can be ordered to pay the plaintiff's attorney fees.
That happened to San Bernardino County recently, Haueter said. Although the judge upheld 97 exemptions, two were ruled unjust and the county had to pay.
It's not often the scales of justice are tipped in favor of the public. It's nice to know it sometimes happens.