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In California, Progress On a Bill to Open Government Records

BY Sarah Lai Stirland | Thursday, May 24 2012

Image: Shutterstock

Legislation that would require all California government agencies to make public records available in an "open" format moved forward on Thursday after activists rallied to persuade the state's Senate Appropriations Committee that the requirement would not burden those agencies with millions of dollars in new obligations.

The State Senate Appropriations Committee on Thursday unanimously approved an amended SB 1002, an open data bill sponsored by California State Sen. Leland Yee (D-San Francisco/San Mateo). The committee had considered tabling the legislation because of an analyst's report that projected a previous version of the legislation would have cost state and local agencies "millions" of dollars because it would have required the purchase of new software and the conversion of existing documents.

But that was never open government activists' intent.

"What we wanted to stop was the scanning of documents into [unsearchable] image files," said David Cruise of the SF Tech Dems, who advised Yee on the legislation, and was the primary force behind moving it through the legislative process. "A lot of times, local cities thought: 'Oh My God, this is going to cost millions of dollars,' but it’s really not. We talked to the Secretary of State's office, and this isn’t going to cost a penny to implement. There’s going to be soft costs to train individuals and to inform them."

What the activists want, and what the legislation calls for, is for government agencies to save documents in a searchable format. The legislation defines "open data" as a document that can be located and downloaded by open source software, public internet applications like Google Docs, or both. The legislation also says that agencies have to make relevant databases available to the public with the "relationships and mappings" intact, and that they have to be functionally operable.

The amended legislation approved Thursday made clear that agencies don't have to make special arrangements to comply with the open data standard when they're buying new technology systems. It also removed a mandate that technology upgrades at agencies have to comply with the standard. If the state had implemented such a mandate, it might have had to reimburse local agencies for their technology purchases.

"Since the State of California is broke, it was never going to pass if we had the mandate," Cruise said in an interview. “We think that naturally no matter what you buy you’re going to comply.”

Cruise said that the legislation is aimed at preventing government agencies from doing things like responding to public records requests by printing out e-mail communications between officials and scanning them into an image file, which makes that information unnecessarily difficult and time-consuming to interpret.

Groups such as the conservation group Forests Forever have also been lobbying for the open data law because the reports filed by logging companies to the state are most often unsearchable PDF files, making the process of tracking clear-cutting in the state much more difficult to track and manage.

The last amendment to the legislation approved on Thursday concerns cost recovery. Thursday's amended legislation states that agencies can charge information requesters for the information in open data formats only if the agency isn't going to use the information in that format itself.

Cruise said that the measure was meant to prevent government agencies from charging arbitrary amounts for information. Requesters have been charged wildly different amounts by different government entities for exactly the same sets of information, he said.

But the California League of Cities and the California Association of Counties were concerned that the previous version of the legislation would have prohibited them from charging requesters fees for the information provided in an open format with the necessary privacy-related redactions put in place.

California's current public records act allows government agencies to charge individuals for copies of the records that they request to recover the costs of the efforts put in to redact information.

"We are concerned that this measure inappropriately limits public agencies from charging for redacting of confidential information," wrote Elizabeth Howard Espinosa CSAC's Senior Legislative Representative to Yee and the members of the senate appropriations committee. "If public agencies are required to keep certain personal information private, then we should also have the ability to recover costs for the work necessary to redact such information."

California Secretary of State Debra Bowen also gave the proposed legislation's chances a boost when she analyzed it in a May 2 letter to Senate Appropriations Chairwoman Christie Kehoe and explained that she did not expect it to cost her office anything.

SB1002 (Yee) Fiscal Impact Approps

The legislation is now headed to the California State Senate floor, where it is scheduled for a vote early next week. The California State Assembly is then expected to take up the legislation.

Yee's spokesman Adam Keigwin said that the senator is "very pleased" at the passage of the legislation.

"It bodes well, and we're hoping that it makes it to the Governor's desk by the early summer," he said.