Editorial: Document requests call for a speedy response

If nothing else, the scandal in Bell — the Southern California city where officials bilked taxpayers for outrageous salaries — has shone a light on why it’s so important to demand transparency by public agencies.

While such egregious conduct is rare, we believe the best way to prevent even minor abuses is to ensure that agencies do their business in the public eye. That includes making public documents readily available in a timely fashion, with no unnecessary roadblocks.

To that end, The Tribune recently tested how well local cities comply with a state regulation requiring public access to financial forms filed by elected officials.

This was not a mere “gotcha” exercise designed to chastise or embarrass a particular agency. Rather, the goal was to help identify deficiencies in the handling of requests, with the hope of smoothing the way for members of the public, should they seek similar information.

Specifically, cities were asked to provide copies of Form 700 for all current council members. That document — also called the Statement of Economic Interests — is a listing of assets, income and gifts, and is key to identifying potential conflicts of interest.

Under the Political Reform Act, Form 700 must be made available upon request as soon as practical — with no requirement to file a formal request under the California Public Records Act.

The majority of cities — Arroyo Grande, Atascadero, Grover Beach, Paso Robles and Pismo Beach in particular — replied promptly and properly with our requests. That’s exactly how city government should work, and we commend those staffs for their knowledge and efficiency.

One small nit: The city of San Luis Obispo initially asked the reporter to fill out a Public Records Act request, but after some discussion, copies of Form 700 were provided later that day.

One big nit: The city of Morro Bay actually did require a reporter to fill out a Public Records Act request, which was then denied. A follow-up request was then made, and the forms were eventually made available four days later, along with an apology.

That was disappointing, though again, we hope the exercise will help city staffs avoid such glitches in the future.

While we recognize that requests for Form 700 and similar documents may be relatively rare, they are no less important than more routine queries for building permits or business licenses or city council agendas. Indeed, they could prove far more important if they help prevent the type of abuses that have brought Bell and other cities close to ruin.

We strongly urge all government agencies to not only know the laws regarding release of public documents, but to also make sure that employees are trained on how to put them into practice.