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Free information, public says.

California poll finds wide support for access

California voters overwhelmingly support broad changes in state law to improve public access to information held by government, and they believe that too many important government decisions are made behind closed doors, according to a new statewide survey.

In the first poll of its type in the nation, voters by large majorities said they favor greater access to government records and information used in government business.

Most voters believe government officials regularly thwart the state's open records law and withhold information that should be made public.

By a large margin, they believe government officials who violate open records laws should face civil or criminal penalties. State law provides only for the assessment of legal fees against a government body if an individual sues to gain access to government information and prevails in court. The amount awarded is left to the court's discretion.

Voters believe the public should have unfettered access to much government information that is now closed, including the disciplinary records and performance evaluations of public employees such as judges, police officers, teachers, prosecutors and prison guards. Seven in 10 likely voters support public access to the names of public employees disciplined for negligence or incompetence on the job.

Pollster Richard Maullin of Santa Monica-based Fairbank, Maslin, Maullin & Associates, said the poll's results should send a strong message to state lawmakers that the public wants far more information than is available under the California Public Records Act, which exempts hundreds of state records.

Broad support for changes in the law suggest that no segment of the Legislature should be indifferent to this issue or fail to perceive that a substantial majority of the public favors strengthening freedom of information laws in California, Maullin said.

The poll shows that the public also favors increased access to the files of children under court protection, if those children are suspected to be victims of abuse, neglect and murder. The information, which is now closed to the public, involves youngsters in foster homes and protective custody.

Similarly, the voting public believes that the names of juveniles who commit serious crimes should no longer be kept confidential, nor should their court records. That information, except in rare cases, is now confidential.

There is considerable support for releasing police reports of crimes to the public, as well as the files of closed criminal investigations-both of which are generally kept confidential under California law.

In addition, more than eight in 10 voters believe that information regarding unsafe products should be released, even if a California court has ruled that it be kept confidential.

Although California Gov. Pete Wilson twice has frustrated legislative attempts to guarantee the public's right to computerized government information, the poll found that an overwhelming majority of California voters - about eight in 10 - believe this information should be available in electronic form so that people with home computers can review and analyze it.

In vetoing reform legislation that would have obligated government agencies to surrender public information in electronic form, Wilson said it could have proven too burdensome and costly for government agencies to provide, even though the law allows agencies to recover direct costs for copying.

Overall, voters are so concerned about access that seven in 10 said they would support a state constitutional amendment to require broad disclosure, including all records that the government relies upon in making policy decisions.

The measure they were asked to consider also would allow judges to order the disclosure of information that is now confidential under current law if the court finds there is an overriding public interest in disclosing the information.

The suggested amendment would declare that the "people of California have a fundamental right of access to government records and meetings."

Although the law states the public now has such a right, it can be overridden by other provisions in the law and myriad exemptions. An amendment would elevate the "right to know" to a constitutional right, superseding existing and possibly conflicting statutes.
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Title Annotation:California poll
Publication:The Quill
Date:Oct 1, 1998
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