Government transparency shouldn't be a victim of the pandemic

The League of California Cities has asked Gov. Gavin Newsom to let its nearly 500 member cities keep the public in the dark during the COVID-19 pandemic. City officials have a lot on their plate right now, but a pandemic does not justify undercutting transparency by executive decree.

The request to avoid sharing records with the public was part of a wish list of waivers the league recently sent to Newsom. Some of them are fair accommodations to better deal with public business during an emergency. For example, the league would like to put off fingerprinting sex offenders who move into a new home and therefore must register with local police. The offenders would still register, but the fingerprinting, which requires person-to-person contact, could wait until social distancing ends.

The league also wants four extra months for things like approving or denying solar panels, environmental impact studies and reviewing development projects. People can quibble over whether four months is too much, but some clearly defined extra time is warranted under the circumstances.

Then there’s the public records ask. One part is actually worth considering. Normally when a Californian asks for public records, the government must respond within 10 days. Under “unusual circumstances” an agency can have a 14-day extension. State law defines what counts as an unusual circumstance, and the definition doesn’t include a public health emergency. So the league would like the governor to order that the current emergency count an unusual circumstance.

Fair enough. If these aren’t unusual circumstances, we don’t know what are. But 14 days wasn’t enough for the league. Unlike the other extensions, it wants an open-ended one for public records requests unless the records are related to the state of emergency.

If that happens, most records, except those that a city deems related to the current crisis, might remain secret for months or even years. Cities could keep major spending decisions, strategies to deal with homelessness, police shootings and development decisions all under wraps until well after the time the public can do much about them. Just because COVID-19 is overwhelming cities doesn’t mean that they aren’t doing other public business that will have long-lasting effects on communities.

It probably wouldn’t just be cities, either. A gubernatorial order could apply to all state and local government. California public records laws have timelines because when a bureaucrat or elected official says, “I’ll do it later,” it’s about as convincing as hearing it from a teenager asked to take out the garbage.

Yet that’s what public watchdogs are already hearing. When Press Democrat reporter Tyler Silvy asked Sonoma County for some emails, which are public records, the county replied that it wasn’t in the public interest to release them now because county staff are too busy. They’ll get to it when normal business resumes. That could be never.

The governor has already relaxed some transparency rules by executive order, but he hasn’t responded to the league’s request. Maybe he’s ignoring it. He shouldn’t. This attempt to undermine the public’s right to know deserves a smackdown from the top. Newsom should tell cities that even during a pandemic, the public’s right to know is essential. Open government is easy when there is not much going on. It’s most important when there is.