In a check of how well local cities comply with state rules for providing information about the economic interests of elected officials, a Tribune investigation found that six of the region’s cities did a good job of meeting the requirements.
But Morro Bay did not properly respond to repeated requests to provide information that is required under California law to be given to the public as soon as practical.
A group of Tribune reporters fanned out to city halls Monday and requested Form 700 — also called the “Statement of Economic Interests” — for all current city council members. The 700 is one of several forms that elected officials must file with the state Fair Political Practices Commission.
The forms are subject to the Political Reform Act, which requires agencies to produce most forms as soon as practical.
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“The concept is that you can walk into your city clerk’s office, or whoever is maintaining the documents for the locality, and they should be able to present it to you at that time so you can review it,” said Roman Porter, executive director of the commission, the state agency responsible for interpreting the Political Reform Act’s provisions and for issuing the form requested by reporters last week.
In the forms, public officials are required to disclose their assets, income and gifts, including stocks, income from and investments in businesses that the official owns or has a partnership in, travel reimbursements and rental property income. That way, taxpayers can determine whether there are any potential conflicts of interest that may arise as council members or mayors carry out their roles.
Morro Bay was the only city in San Luis Obispo County that did not properly respond to repeated requests to provide the information.
Nearly every other city provided the information quickly and without question. The information should already be on file, according to Porter, because candidates seeking public office must file a Form 700 as part of their election materials.
However, Morro Bay required that a California Public Records Act request — which allows the agency up to 10 days to respond — be filled out and then denied the initial request, citing the city attorney’s determination that newly seated council members have 30 days to file the financial disclosure form.
The reporter made a second request two days later and eventually received the information by fax, four days after the initial request.
It was called a misunderstanding by the city employee who handled the requests.
Morro Bay was not the only city to stumble over the process to provide this information.San Luis Obispo administrators appeared not to know that the specific report requested had to be provided as quickly as possible, saying that they had 10 days to fulfill a request.
A San Luis Obispo clerk’s office employee incorrectly told the reporter that the forms fell under the Public Records Act and asked the reporter to fill out a request, even through the reporter said one wasn’t needed.
The forms were then e-mailed to the reporter later that day.
Several cities complied immediately: Paso Robles e-mailed the forms about a half-hour after they were requested, at no charge. Atascadero city employees produced them on request — no questions asked — and made copies of them for a fee of $1.50.
An Arroyo Grande city employee summoned City Clerk Kelly Wetmore, who promptly provided the material and asked whether the reporter wanted copies. She explained the information and did not ask for identification, nor did she charge for the copies.
Grover Beach City Clerk Donna McMahon also produced and copied the information within 10 minutes for a $3.10 fee.
A cashier asked for the reporter’s name, which she said was standard protocol when someone paid cash and was to receive a written receipt. The reporter provided her name and left.
The Pismo Beach city clerk’s assistant asked for an organizational affiliation; the reporter declined to give one, and the assistant provided the forms within five minutes at no charge. City employees in Paso Robles and San Luis Obispo offered to e-mail the forms so that a copying fee would not be charged.
Background on the law
The Political Reform Act was passed by California voters in 1974.
“Over the last 36 years this has become a fundamental element of our form of democracy,” Porter said.
The importance of the FPPC’s forms is how they shed light on potential conflicts of interest for elected officials, said Jim Ewert, legal counsel for the California Newspaper Publishers Association, which advised The Tribune on its project.
“The public disclosure of information contained in these forms is vital for citizens to understand what potential conflicts of interest public officials have and to determine how effectively officials deal with those conflicts,” Ewert said.
“These forms are valuable tools for citizens to measure how well their government is operating.”
Other FPPC forms include Form 501, which identifies candidates seeking office and must be filed before they may receive money; Forms 460 and 461, which are comprehensive reports of money raised and spent by candidates; and Form 497, the disclosure of contributions immediately preceding an election.
A candidate for office must file a Form 700 with other election paperwork. Once a candidate is elected, that person has to file a second Form 700, with a deadline of 30 days after assuming office.
Elected officials continuing on in office must file the Form 700 annually, usually by either March 1 or April 1. People appointed to fill city council vacancies must file within 30 days, according to the FPPC’s website.
Public officials may not place any conditions on people seeking access to the forms — such as requiring them to file a written request — nor may they ask for identification or redact any information on paper copies of original statements.
They are not required to put the forms online.
California Government Code Section 81008 states that copies shall be provided at a charge not to exceed 10 cents per page; an additional charge of $5 per request for copies of reports and statements that are 5 or more years old may also apply.
How we did it: Tribune reporters fanned out across County
Seven Tribune staff writers visited city halls in the seven cities in San Luis Obispo County on Monday.
Each reporter asked for a copy of the Form 700 for current council members, including those who were recently elected. Reporters did not identify themselves as such unless asked.
The Political Reform Act states that public agencies cannot require information or identification from people seeking access to Fair Political Practices Commission forms, including its Form 700, or “Statement of Economic Interests.”
The Tribune undertook this project as part of its ongoing effort to investigate how transparent local governments are with public information. Other coverage this fall has examined salaries paid to top managers in area cities as well as the top 50 wage earners in the city of San Luis Obispo.
The Political Reform Act can be found in California Government Code Sections 81000-91014. To search California codes, go to www.leginfo.ca.gov/calaw.html.
Tribune staff writers AnnMarie Cornejo, Bob Cuddy, Stacy Daniel, Julia Hickey, David Sneed and Tonya Strickland contributed to this report.