10:00 PM PST on Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Cassie Macduff

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.

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