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Court tentatively orders Assembly to release spending records

December 1, 2011 |  3:54 pm

A Sacramento County Superior Court judge has tentatively ordered the California Assembly to release lawmakers’ office budgets and other legislative documents it had claimed were exempt from public disclosure.

The ruling, issued by Judge Timothy M. Frawley on Thursday afternoon, came in response to a lawsuit filed by the Los Angeles Times and the Sacramento Bee after the Assembly denied the newspapers’ requests to see legislators’ current spending records.

The judge has scheduled a hearing Friday to give the parties an opportunity to contest the tentative ruling before it becomes final.

Earlier this year, Assembly administrators had claimed that the records were confidential under provisions in the Legislature Open Records Act that exempt “preliminary drafts, notes or legislative memoranda” and “correspondence of and to individual members of the Legislature and their staff.”

On Thursday, Frawley said the Assembly “improperly withheld” the records and chided the lower-house for its “somewhat ironic” view of the open-records law, with legislative lawyers arguing for “a narrow interpretation that significantly restricts the public’s right to inspect legislative records.”

“The records requested by the news organizations indisputably contain information relating to the conduct of the public's business,” Frawley wrote. “The records all reflect how Assembly money is budgeted and spent, which is critical to an understanding of the Legislature's operations.”

The judge strongly rejected the Assembly’s argument that the records qualified as confidential “correspondence” under the open-records law.

“Nothing in the legislative history suggests the correspondence exemption was intended to keep secret any document that might be passed between or among members or their staff,” Frawley wrote. “Such an exemption would clearly swallow the rule of public access, rendering the adoption of the Open Records Act a largely futile act.”

--Michael J. Mishak in Sacramento

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