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State isn't likely to appeal records ruling

Assembly speaker's spokesman says papers' victory will help Legislature better understand records act.

December 04, 2011|By Joe Piasecki, joe.piasecki@latimes.com

Calling a Sacramento County Superior Court judge’s ruling this week “pretty clear,” a spokesman for Assembly Speaker John Perez said the state probably won’t appeal an order to release spending records for individual lawmakers.

Judge Timothy M. Frawley issued the tentative ruling Thursday, siding with the Los Angeles Times — parent company of the Glendale News-Press, La Cañada Valley Sun and Pasadena Sun — and McClatchy Newspapers, which sued after Assembly leaders denied requests for the budget information, claiming the documents were exempt from public disclosure laws.

Reporters sought budget records for lawmakers after Assemblyman Anthony Portantino (D-La Cañada Flintridge) complained in June that Democratic leaders slashed his staff budget as political payback for voting against the party’s budget proposal.

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The Assembly, which has up to 60 days to appeal the decision, is not likely to contest the order, said John Vigna, a spokesman for Perez’s office.

An appeal “is a possibility, but we have no immediate plans to do so. The judge’s ruling was pretty clear,” Vigna said. “We’re looking at compliance with the ruling.”

The court is expected to order disclosure of the budget records as early as next week.

In his tentative ruling, Frawley wrote that he was “persuaded that the strong public interest in disclosure outweighs any reason for keeping the records secret.”

Assembly spending figures released during the political spat showed that some legislators conceal their true spending levels by tapping committee and caucus budgets.

Attorney Kelli Sager, who represented the newspapers, said the decision was a “strong affirmation of the public’s right to know how the state Legislature is spending taxpayer dollars.”

Calling the ruling a “first step” in bringing about greater transparency and accountability, Portantino said the judgment was more than a personal victory.

“It’s no longer about me. The press has done a very good job of showing how budgets have been manipulated,” he said. “Now, it’s time to focus on how we bring fairness and accountability to the process.”

Vigna cast the ruling as helping Sacramento better understand open-records laws that the current Legislature never passed.

The Legislative Open Records Act “is a law we didn’t write, and the precedent we were upholding, we didn’t set,” he said. “Now we have some clarification … and we’ll adopt procedures accordingly.”

Terry Francke, general counsel for the open-government group Californians Aware, said the ruling was the first significant legal test of the act and “a game-opener” in terms of expanding the public’s right to know how lawmakers do public business.

“It looks like this case has at least warned the Legislature not to get too creative when it comes to secrecy,” he said.

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