Suit seeks database on bills, lawmakers' votes

Matthew Yi, Chronicle Sacramento Bureau

Thursday, December 4, 2008

(12-04) 04:00 PST Sacramento --

Open-government advocates filed a lawsuit against the state Wednesday, asking a Superior Court judge to order the Legislative Counsel to provide an electronic database containing information on bills and lawmakers' voting records.

The suit was filed jointly by the California First Amendment Coalition and, a nonprofit in Berkeley that operates a Web site that analyzes the relationship between campaign contributions by special-interest groups and how lawmakers vote on legislation.

Last summer, both groups asked the state office to provide the information either on a CD or a DVD, but officials at the agency refused.

The complaint is centered around the California Public Records Act, which requires state and local governments to make certain information available to the public.

"The government already creates a database of all the votes and all the bills. They are important civic information and important for our democracy," said Daniel Newman, co-founder and executive director of

Jeff DeLand, chief deputy at the Legislative Counsel's office, declined to comment Wednesday, saying his office had not seen the lawsuit.

The Legislative Counsel gives legal advice to the Legislature and writes the technical language in bills. The office also operates a Web site that can search information on bills, analysis of legislation written by legislative committees, lists of supporters and opponents of the legislation, and voting records of lawmakers.

But that information comes up in individual text files, making it nearly impossible for analysis that would require aggregating such information into a database, said Newman.

Rachel Matteo-Boehm, a lawyer for, said representatives of the Legislative Counsel's office have argued that the agency's Web site satisfies the legal requirement of the state's public records law. DeLand on Wednesday declined to respond.

Peter Scheer, executive director of the California First Amendment Coalition, said he's puzzled by the agency's refusal to make the information available in electronic form.

"We're simply asking for a day-to-day database as they exist," he said, adding that the coalition got involved to assist

The Berkeley nonprofit's Web site contains similar up-to-date information on Congress. The group receives voting records of members of Congress about an hour after they vote on legislation, getting the data from a third-party firm that tracks such information.

"We are a powerful transparency tool to look at how legislators vote and how special interests influence them," Newman said.

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