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Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Needless Secrecy

Needless Secrecy 
The Press-Enterprise - EDITORIAL - May 14, 2012 

Damaging the openness and integrity of California’s property records is a reckless way to address potential personal security threats. Legislators should scrap a bill that would hinder real estate transactions, aid corruption and provide special privileges for some property owners — ostensibly to protect public safety workers. AB 2299, by Assemblyman Mike Feuer, D-Los Angeles, would authorize counties to start a special confidential property records program for public safety officials. The bill would allow police, prosecutors, judges, prison guards and others to request removal of their names from any property document that includes those officials’ home addresses. The bill aims to prevent people from learning where law enforcement personnel live, supposedly to avert threats and intimidation. But this bill would trade away the public interest in transparency for hypothetical gains in security — a bad bargain that legislators should reject. Feuer offers no evidence that these records have actually put public safety officials in jeopardy. Yet the bill directly targets the public’s longstanding right of access to property records. AB 2299 would undermine a property rights system that depends on the full disclosure of those documents. Redacting some property records would obstruct public scrutiny of ownership and transactions, opening the door to fraud and corruption. The favored few would be able to conduct business outside the public view, when everyone else has to be fully transparent. Those special protections would inhibit news organizations and the public from investigating potential wrongdoing — including the current allegations that the Los Angeles County assessor has been giving property tax breaks in return for campaign contributions. Secrecy only enables such schemes. AB 2299 would also impede real estate sales, which depend on showing clear title to property. Proving ownership is difficult without public access to land records. The result would be longer paperwork delays for property sales and higher transaction costs — which would hardly benefit the state’s struggling real estate industry. The bill would also allow public safety personnel to shield details about property in contentious divorces, hide assets from creditors and block public knowledge about unpaid property taxes. Backers of the bill, largely law enforcement unions, say the bill is necessary to keep officers’ home addresses out of malicious hands. But that contention lacks any substantiation. And personal information is readily available in an Internet age, so closing off property files would likely provide little security — certainly not enough to justify the cost to public records. Such perks also have a tendency to expand unchecked. Police, prosecutors and judges are hardly the only public officials who face potential threats, and pressure would soon mount to include wider and wider swaths of public employees — even elected officials — under this shroud of confidentiality. The harm to public accountability and property records’ integrity would only multiply. California does not need laws that treat government employees better than the taxpayers they serve. The state can protect public safety officials without sacrificing open property records and real-estate transparency.

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