Thursday, December 4, 2008
Advocacy Groups Sue for Release of Legislative Voting Database
By STEVEN M. ELLIS, Staff Writer
Two nonprofit groups filed suit yesterday to force the state’s Office of Legislative Counsel to release an electronic database containing records of state legislators’ votes on bills, saying they need the information for a website attempting to show connections between votes and campaign contributions.
In a complaint filed in Sacramento Superior Court, the California First Amendment Coalition and website operator MAPLight.org accused Legislative Counsel Diane F. Boyer-Vine of violating state open-government laws by denying access to the database on the basis that the individual records it contains are already publicly available.
MAPLight first requested the “underlying database, both structure and content, used to produce the ‘Bill Information’ section of the Official California Legislative Information website” for legislative sessions from 2003 forward under the Legislative Open Records Act and the California Public Records Act in July. MAPLight proposes to allow users to search for California legislators’ votes, and analyze trends in voting, bill topics, and patterns of campaign contributions to track special-interest influence.
The group says it seeks to “illuminate…the connection between Money And Politics via a database of campaign contributions and legislative outcomes,” and the proposed website would replicate a similar website the group maintains which cross-references campaign donations and votes at the congressional level.
Records in the state database are currently available to the public in a text-based format, but MAPLight and the coalition contend that format is suitable only for viewing and printing.
MAPLight’s executive director, Daniel Newman, called the publicly-available information “the equivalent of a 10,000 page printout,” and said that reviewing individual records to compile the dataset necessary to operate the proposed website would take journalists and researchers “weeks, if not months,” making the type of searching and analysis his group proposes “nearly impossible.”
In a letter denying the request, Deputy Legislative Counsel J. Christopher Dawson wrote that the Legislative Open Records Act “does not apply to the Legislative Counsel Bureau,” and said the agency would not produce the database because it was “exempted” from the Public Records Act.
Government Code Sec. 10248 requires the Legislative Counsel to make certain bill information available in an electronic format, but Dawson said that “records in the custody of, or maintained, by the Legislative Counsel generally are exempt from mandatory disclosure” under Sec. 6254(m).
He added that although an exception may be made for certain records in the public database, “that exception does not require disclosure of the database itself.”
Executive Director Peter Scheer of the California First Amendment Coalition—which files test-case lawsuits against government agencies at all levels in order to uphold “free speech and government transparency,” among other activities—sent a letter the following month to the Office of Legislative Counsel requesting the same records, but his request was also denied, a decision the office upheld in October after reconsidering the matter at the parties’ urging.
Representatives of the Office of Legislative Counsel could not be reached yesterday for comment on the suit, but counsel for the nonprofits—San Francisco attorney Rachel Matteo-Boehm of Holme, Roberts & Owen LLP—said her clients had tried to work with the office to obtain a voluntary release of the records, and commented that the office “unfortunately…declined to do so, leaving litigation as the only option.”
She added that “[t]he law is clear that the public has a right to obtain these records in a useable electronic format, and that’s what we’re after.”
Newman further criticized Boyer-Vine’s office’s withholding of a database that “already exists [and] has already been paid for by the taxpayers of California,” while Scheer added that there was “no justification” in the age of the Internet “for government to maintain monopoly control over online access to public records.”
Accusing the Legislative Counsel of being “obviously afraid” release of the database would “make it too easy for voters to connect financial contributions by special interests to specific votes and other accommodating actions by legislators,“ Scheer said that “fear of [legislators’] embarrassment is hardly a basis for withholding government records from public view.”
Copyright 2008, Metropolitan News Company