“A popular government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy; or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance: And a people who mean to be their own governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”

So said James Madison in a letter written to W.T. Barry 200 years ago this year. Barry had written to Madison first, looking for help establishing schools in Kentucky. (These would be schools for white people. Barry, President Andrew Jackson’s postmaster, was a slaveholder.)

Why do we mention this here? The San Mateo County civil grand jury invoked the words of Madison in a report issued last week with a title that itself sounded like something out of the 19th century: “A Delicate Balance between Knowledge and Power: Government Transparency and the Public’s Right to Know.” The grand jury was making a case — albeit an extraordinarily qualified one — for more robust policies and procedures surrounding California Public Records Act requests.

Forgetting Madison’s assumption that “knowledge will forever govern ignorance” (well, we certainly know better than that in 2022), his premise was true. Those of us who wish to govern ourselves must avail ourselves of the relevant information if we want to do a decent job of it. As the grand jury learned, some local cities make that easier than others. Many of the 20 cities in the county can and should do better.

The recommendations contained in the grand jury’s Aug. 9 report are strangely tepid. It says cities should “consider” written policies, better software, clearer communications with citizens, an online request form, and regular document maintenance. Consider? Honestly, does local government have something better to do than help citizens be better citizens? We would argue there is very little going on at our city hall more important than transparency and giving residents what they need to know to make informed decisions about their own governance.

The California Public Records Act was signed into law by then-Gov. Ronald Reagan in 1968. It was modeled on what was then still a novel concept, the federal Freedom of Information Act. The California law stipulates that local government share its business with the business owners — you and me. Police records, building permits, employee compensation and more is a matter of public record as a result of this important legislation.

Some cities, including Half Moon Bay, earned praise from the grand jury for their process. The grand jury noted that Half Moon Bay maintains a “document center” on its website with 2,000 records dating back a decade. That means no formal request is necessary in many instances. Making so many records available as a matter of course, without requiring the bureaucracy for access, reduces the time-consuming back and forth that sometimes makes response to a PRA maddening.

The grand jury found that 35 percent of San Mateo County municipalities have no written procedures for handling public records requests, which is incredible given that most said they receive more than 100 formal requests a year. Mind you, these are bureaucratic institutions with arcane rules for virtually everything else.

Too often, citizen requests for documents are treated like an affront or at least a time suck. In fact, they are the heart of a democracy. Kudos to the grand jury for bringing the issue to the fore 200 years after Madison.

— Clay Lambert

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(2) comments

John Charles Ullom

Somebody ask Clay just how many PRA requests the Review has filed during the last five years. Ask the publisher how many stories the Review has printed based on the results of PRA Requests filed by the Review.

The Review has become a sad dispenser of happy news since the new ownership group took over. Heck, "WE" at the Review doesn't even think you want or need to know about the biggest scandal in San Mateo County since Munks and Bolanos were busted paying for nookie at residential house of sex slaves.

The Public Records Act is critical to keep them honest. But Clay is making himself a joke. So tell us Clay, when was the last story published by the Review that results from a PRA request filed by the Review?

Vince

There's not as much daylight in California these days. There's been several appellate ruling that have weakened the Public Record Act statutes over the years Many local agencies see it as a nuisance, an unfunded mandate from Sacramento. So, many local agencies' unwritten policy is to not be all that responsive or helpful. A couple of years ago, I made a PRA request of a CA state agency I was having issues with. I was told over the counter, oh, that's proprietary, we can't show you. How can it be proprietary it's a public record, you recorded it? See your stamp right here? The person on the other side of the counter closes the file and gives me the do we have to call security look. So, I wrote one of my cover every contingency request letters, certified mail... Back and forth. Phone calls from the state's lame lawyers at all hours begging me to capitulate and accept a lobby brochure, instead. Finally, I went and consulted with an attorney, who said, Oh them, yeah they are like that. You have an excellent case, I'll take it, pro bono. Only, you have to understand they fight discovery with a stone wall, Oh we'll win eventually and in 18 months you'll prevail, they'll pay my fees... But, can you wait 18 months? ughh, NO.

It's a different ball game now. The press has been disrupted and has to live to fight another day. There's no point in fighting a protracted lengthy legal battles to only claim an irrelevant piece of history. Be happy there's some daylight left in some places and dwell in them.

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