Mixed report on openness for Arnie

Arnold Schwarzenegger campaigned as a champion of open government when he ran for governor in 2003: "There's no such thing as democracy in the dark," he said.

But in the four years since he took office, the Republican governor has put together a record on freedom of information and public access issues that has provided both darkness and light, according to a recent review of his record.

"It's clearly a mixed bag," said Tom Newton, general counsel for the California Newspaper Publishers Association. "He's done some good things and done some things in our opinion that are bad. ... We've put a lot of things before him, and we've had limited success."

Schwarzenegger has sided with the publishers association and other public-access groups seven times on 20 bills generating freedom-of-information debates that have reached his desk since the start of 2004, according to records maintained by the CNPA. Some of the bills he has vetoed were retreads of measures he previously rejected, so the record is a little more even than the overall figures indicate.

Schwarzenegger's record includes vetoes on numerous pieces of legislation intended to provide greater access to government meetings or records. Some of those bills would have:

  • Made it easier for news reporters to interview prison inmates.
  • Prohibited officials from denying prison access to clergy members who file complaints or tell the media or public about prison conditions.
  • Required state agencies to list procedures for obtaining public records on their Web sites. The same bill also would have required the attorney general to issue nonbinding opinions about whether an agency had a legal right in refusing to release a particular record, a step bill supporters hoped would compel agencies to release information without court fights.
  • Prohibited city councils and other local government boards from using a series of one-on-one meetings and communications to get around open-meeting requirements before they make a decision.

Typically, Schwarzenegger's veto messages have stressed his support for opening government procedures and records but claim the bills he rejected would have gone too far or had negative side effects.

Schwarzenegger also has signed some bills opposed by the publishers association. Those include legislation allowing public agencies to refuse to disclose information about people who work at family planning or abortion clinics. Another allowed the sealing of financial records in divorce cases.

The governor also has a mixed record on opening records maintained by his office. Schwarzenegger released his appointment schedules for his first year in office after voters in 2004 approved Proposition 59, a constitutional amendment strengthening public access to government records.

But he refused to open the appointment calendars of two of his top aides until he was sued by two newspapers and a free speech group in 2005. He settled the lawsuit a few months later by agreeing to release the calendars covering a month in 2004 when he was considering whether to sign or veto hundreds of bills.

Schwarzenegger has been lauded for an order he issued in 2005 telling state agencies to get approval from his office before denying access to public records. Open-access advocates say that has reduced agencies' use of a legal provision allowing them to withhold records if they decide the public interest would be better served by nondisclosure.

The public access group Californians Award gave 31 state agencies an F grade for their compliance with Open Record Act requirements. Afterward, Schwarzenegger issued an executive order requiring training to ensure state employees know how to comply with the California Public Records Act.

Schwarzenegger record mixed on opening government records, access (San Francisco Chronicle, 3 November 2007)