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Legislature must release lawmakers’ calendars

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POSTED April 30, 2015 10:36 p.m.

SACRAMENTO (AP) — In the first ruling of its kind in California, a Sacramento County judge says the state Legislature should release the appointment books, meeting schedules and calendars of two lawmakers facing separate federal corruption prosecutions.

In a tentative ruling issued Thursday, Superior Court Judge Michael Kenny ruled in favor of the Bay Area News Group and the Los Angeles News Group in a lawsuit arguing that the documents are public record.

The groups sued after the Legislature denied reporters’ requests for records involving former Sens. Ron Calderon and Leland Yee, who were suspended after their offices were raided by the FBI last year.

The Legislature operates under its own more restrictive open records law called the Legislative Open Records Act. Despite its declaration that “legislative records are open to inspection at all times,” legislative leaders have for years claimed that schedules of meetings, events and other documents are not subject to disclosure.

Attorneys for the state Legislative Counsel’s Office argued in this case that the documents are correspondence with private citizens not subject to the law, that lawmakers are entitled to a privilege while negotiating sensitive issues of state government and that releasing the calendars, even after the fact, could jeopardize the lawmakers’ safety.

The judge said in his tentative ruling that the Legislature’s attorneys “provided no evidence that these documents contain any information from a private citizen, other than their identity and the fact that a meeting is taking place.”

On the issue of privilege, he said their interpretation was so broad it would encompass everything the Legislature does.

“The Court does not believe the LORA is a fruitless and meaningless set of laws, and consequently declines to interpret the subject privilege in a way that would so render them,” Kenny wrote.

The ruling comes in the latest effort by the media to learn who has direct access to lawmakers and how they spend their day while on official business. In 2011, The Associated Press, San Jose Mercury News and the First Amendment Coalition, a nonprofit that advocates for free speech and greater government transparency, jointly requested the daily calendars of all 120 state senators and Assembly members. The requests were rejected, citing security and privacy reasons.

The news organizations undertook the 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.

The information the newspapers sought was related to dates referenced in criminal indictments and affidavits, or alleged meetings between the senators and people tied to bribery, arms trafficking or fraud schemes. Kenny said the seriousness of the allegations outweighs the lawmakers’ right to private, deliberative process.

And he said that the burden of proof to show that the lawmakers’ safety would be jeopardized lies with the Legislature, but attorneys had provided no evidence of that.

Kenny will hear further arguments in the case Friday before issuing his final ruling.

The tentative decision issued Thursday is limited only to the specific requests for documents related to Calderon and Yee on certain dates associated with their criminal charges, and do not apply to all dates or all lawmakers.

Robert Pratt of the Office of Legislative Counsel, which is representing the Legislature, did not immediately return a call seeking comment Thursday.

 

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