California legislators insist calendars stay secret
May 5, 2011
SACRAMENTO, Calif. and#8212;Who gets direct access to California lawmakers and how they spend their day when not at official public events remains a secret known only to legislative staff, the lawmakers themselves and the lobbyists who seek influence in the Capitol.
The legislative committees that oversee the offices of California’s 120 state senators and Assembly members refused formal requests to release lawmakers’ daily calendars, citing security and privacy reasons.
The written requests, both general and specific, were made last month by The Associated Press, San Jose Mercury News and the First Amendment Coalition, a San Rafael-based nonprofit that advocates for free speech and greater government transparency.
The records are being sought to give the public a window into an important part of the legislative process.
The news organizations undertook a joint reporting project after both previously were denied access to lawmakers’ daily meeting agendas. The governor and the other seven state constitutional offices already make their calendars public.
In a letter from the Assembly and Senate rules committees, leaders cited the Legislative Open Records Act, which governs access to documents and other information about the state Legislature. The Legislature has repeatedly cited the act in denying requests from the public and the media.
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“They’ve created for themselves a special statute which is misnamed the Legislative Open Records Act, which in reality means the Legislative Official Secrets Act,” said Peter Scheer, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition.
The coalition is working with the news organizations and might participate in any legal challenge that could be brought over the question of whether lawmakers’ daily schedules should be made public.
Other state offices and agencies are covered under the California Public Records Act. Lawmakers exempted themselves in 1975 with the passage of their own law, which allows the Legislature to be far more restrictive in its release of information. Scheer said the law is “fundamentally the same” as the Public Records Act, but the rules committees have interpreted it “so that they only disclose what they want to disclose.”
In 2004, an Assembly committee killed a reform bill that would have put the burden on the Legislature to show why a particular piece of information should be exempt from disclosure.
Also in 2004, California voters approved a constitutional amendment that makes access to government records and meetings a civil right. When lawmakers placed the measure on the ballot, they excluded themselves from many of Proposition 59’s provisions.
All statewide constitutional officers, including the governor, have provided copies of their calendars to the AP. Some were more detailed than others, but all listed relevant meetings with interest groups while redacting personal details and contact information.
Gov. Jerry Brown’s predecessor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, faced a lawsuit from the First Amendment Coalition over his calendars and agreed to make them public after Proposition 59 passed.
Some lawmakers told the newspaper that they were willing to make their calendars public. Even then, they were restricted from doing so under the Legislature’s policy.
While the rules committees have not publicly specified a formal punishment for releasing the calendars, lawmakers can face the loss of committee seats, leadership posts and political retribution from colleagues who do not wish to make their records public.
The requests for calendars submitted to all 120 lawmakers were forwarded to the Senate and Assembly rules committees.
A request by Sen. Leland Yee, D-San Francisco, to Secretary of the Senate Gregory Schmidt seeking permission to release his calendars was denied, as was a previous request by Yee in early 2010 after the AP made a separate inquiry.
“For me, this is the people’s work. The people’s workand#8212;the people should know what I’m doing. I think that’s the only way to hold us accountable,” Yee said. “I think the general public should have access to more information about all of its elected officials.”
Yee did not release his calendars.
Assembly members Richard Gordon, D-San Mateo, and Susan Bonilla, D-Concord, initially agreed verbally to release some of their calendars, but were later told not to by the Assembly Rules Committee.
Before the committees’ formal rejection, newly elected Assemblywoman Nora Campos, D-San Jose, denied a request from the Mercury News for the calendar of her first month in office, citing a recent meeting with “some CEOs” who she said would not want the meeting made public.
Campos also expressed security concerns, noting the January shooting of Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords during a gathering for constituents outside a supermarket in her district.
“It’s important we be protected,” Campos told the newspaper. “On the local level, I’m an open book” and would happily share her calendar. But in Sacramento, she said, she has to be more careful.
Some lawmakers have ignored the rules in the past, however.
Joe Canciamilla, a Democrat from the eastern San Francisco Bay area city of Pittsburg who served in the Assembly from 2000 to 2006, said he ignored directives from the Assembly speaker and the Rules Committee not to produce his calendar.
“Calendars give the best picture of who’s coming in on a regular basis. If you see the same lobbyists coming in 10 times, there’s something more going on than the initial meet-and-greet. It tells you who the contacts are and who they’re meeting with,” he said.
He told the newspaper that it was “hypocritical” that the Legislature requires so much disclosure from other public bodies, such as school districts and city councils, through laws it has enacted such as the Ralph M. Brown public meetings act, “then they turn around and say we’re exempt from all that; it doesn’t apply to us. That’s pretty outrageous.”
Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, said it’s important to the political process that lawmakers be free to meet privately with other members for sensitive conversations, particularly with members of the other party.
“For right or for wrong, when it comes to making hard agreements, compromise agreements, there has to be a level, at least for me, of being able to just protect the confidences of others who might be talking with me,” he said.
In contrast to the statewide officeholders, Steinberg said, virtually everything the Legislature does is recorded and publicly available, “and our votes are taken after debate and discussion that is not only public, but often televised.”
Assembly Speaker John Perez, D-Los Angeles, did not respond to a request for comment.
The AP requested the daily calendars from all 120 lawmakers in 2010 as part of a yearlong series about legislative spending and how the Legislature conducts its business.
In rejecting that request, the rules committees pointed to a provision within the Legislative Open Records Act that excludes “preliminary drafts, notes, legislative memoranda, personnel, medical or similar files” that are part of the lawmakers’ deliberative process. They also cited security concerns and a 1991 California Supreme Court decision that allowed then-Gov. George Deukmejian to keep his schedule private under a separate state open records law.
The committees also have rejected requests from the AP to disclose where lawmakers drove their state-owned vehicles and their destinations while flying on taxpayer-financed trips, and refused to provide electronic copies of documents about legislative staff salaries.
The rules committees recently denied a formal AP request for the identities of four Assembly members who asked for permission to carry concealed guns inside the Capitol, even though the lawmakers willingly identified themselves to the AP.
In a letter to Yee last year, Schmidt, the secretary of the Senate, said the Senate had an obligation to protect citizens’ rights to “complain, chastise, petition or even praise” their elected officials without third parties knowing about it.
This year, the three organizations requested various documents related to lawmakers’ official schedules to examine how they carry out the people’s business.
Among the documents sought in the joint project was a list of all the requests and responses for public records made to the Legislature since 2006.
“I firmly believe the real reason the committees denied our request for responses to past record requests is they would be embarrassed to reveal that the public is never given access; the Legislature always says no,” said Scheer, whose group submitted that request.
The Mercury News sent letters in April seeking to view the activities of all freshmen legislators, as well as their chiefs of staff and legislative directors, during their first month in office in January 2011. That request covered 29 first-term Assembly members and three first-term senators. The newspaper also requested the 2009 and 2010 calendars of Speaker Perez related to a bill he pushed for Home Depot that exempted the mega-chain from food safety laws.
The AP asked for the calendars of the four legislative leaders involved in last year’s budget negotiations, including former Sen. Dennis Hollingsworth, who no longer holds public office, and details of the scheduled meetings of all 120 lawmakers and their chiefs of staff and legislative directors during the first three months of this year.
The Legislature’s application of the Legislative Open Records Act is just one of many examples of the Legislature exempting itself from disclosure, said Kathay Feng, executive director of the good-government group Common Cause in California.
Just as the White House and the state constitutional officers share their calendars, she said, California lawmakers “owe it to the public to open up their scheduling books. That doesn’t mean we’re prying into their personal business. If they have nothing to hide, they should be willing to release them.”