SACRAMENTO (CBS / AP) — A judge ruled Friday that individual office budgets for California’s 80 Assembly members are public records and must be released. It was unclear, however, when the Assembly planned to do so.

The court ruling could lead to the disclosure of information previously deemed secret under the Legislature’s narrow interpretation of its own open records law.

In his ruling, Superior Court Judge Timothy Frawley said the law actually “reflects a strong presumption in favor of public access to legislative records.”

Frawley sided with The Sacramento Bee and Los Angeles Times in a lawsuit claiming Assembly leaders were shielding documents from the public by relying too heavily on exemptions in the Legislative Open Records Act.

Documents denied to the news organizations and other groups “indisputably contain information relating to the conduct of the public’s business,” Frawley wrote.

The Legislature’s reliance on exemptions in the law would render “the adoption of the Open Records Act as a largely futile act,” the judge said. “This cannot have been the Legislature’s intent.”

The Assembly and state Senate have for years relied upon the open records act to shield documents detailing issues such as where lawmakers travel on the public dime to how they spend their days serving the public.

The ruling was also a win for Assemblyman Anthony Portantino, D-La Canada-Flintridge, who has been in a feud with Assembly Speaker John Perez, D-Los Angeles, since Portantino claimed his office budget was slashed as retaliation for voting against the state budget last year. His request that the Assembly Rules Committee release all expenditures by Assembly members was refused.

Portantino said he hopes the ruling will lead to greater transparency in all the Legislature’s activities. He has proposed scrapping the 1975 Legislative Open Records Act and making the Legislature subject to the broader California Open Records Act that applies to state agencies and all statewide elected officials.

He said lawmakers should receive equal budgets, rather than the current system in which the speaker rewards some lawmakers with chairmanships that come with large budgets and staff.

“What happens up here is that the petty politics get in the way of good decisions,” Portantino said.

Officials in Perez’s office and the Assembly Rules Committee, which oversees Assembly records, said they were meeting with attorneys to better understand the ruling.

“There are no immediate plans to appeal, but we are reviewing the court’s decision,” said Robin Swanson, a spokeswoman for Perez.

Several news outlets, including the newspapers that sued, also had been refused access to the spending records under the Legislature’s disclosure rules.

Perez released some documents, but the records offered an incomplete picture of lawmakers’ staff and office spending, and made it difficult to gauge the full extent of each lawmaker’s spending. A handful of Republican lawmakers also released details of their budgets.

Sabrina Lockhart, a spokeswoman for Assembly Minority Leader Connie Conway, R-Tulare, said her caucus had no plans to release budget documents and would wait for a decision from the rules committee.

Perez and legislative staff had argued that the documents they released provided more information than required under the open records law. The judge said the law states that specific spending figures should be made public annually, but that “does not imply that all other financial information should be kept secret.”

Attorneys for the Assembly Rules Committee argued in court filings that many of the other documents sought by the newspapers were “deliberative materials and correspondence that are explicitly exempt from disclosure.”

The newspapers countered that the Assembly was trying to shield the spending records to prevent investigation of Portantino’s claim that lawmakers who vote for legislation backed by the speaker are rewarded with higher budgets, and those who oppose him are financially punished.

In the midst of the controversy last summer, Perez announced he was forming a task force to study open-records issues and would report back when the Legislature reconvenes in January 2012. He said Democratic and Republican lawmakers had expressed concerns about making Assembly expenditures more accessible.

He asked Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, the same lawmaker in charge of blocking the release of budget documents, to investigate whether the Legislative Open Records Act needed to be updated.

Perez, however, has yet to name any other members to the task force or announce any public meetings.

(Copyright 2011 by CBS San Francisco. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)


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