County Counsel Warren Jensen and Deputy County Counsel Rita Neal have slogged through thousands of requests for information under the California Public Records Act.
But when you ask them which one is the most memorable, both of them answer swiftly: the David Edge-Gail Wilcox debacle.
The squalid county management behavior that came to light through Tribune requests for emails under the CPRA in 2009 struck Neal for “the nature, the volume, the amount of emails, the content.”
Even though both worked with Wilcox, Edge and the others whose behavior came to light, they were clearly taken aback.
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However, Jensen said in an interview, “We didn’t let that (the professional relationship) get in the way.”
The Edge-Wilcox incident was only one of many local government imbroglios in which the CPRA has played a role. Here is a look at some of them, as well as some less dramatic uses of the CPRA.
The Edge-Wilcox case
In May of 2009, the Board of Supervisors fired David Edge, who had been the county administrative officer since 1998. The board suspended his assistant, Gail Wilcox, and later fired her as well.
Over the course of the summer and well into the fall, the Edge-Wilcox situation dominated local news as county residents sought to learn more about the imbroglio, while the protagonists sought to protect their professional reputations and guard themselves legally.
Information came out slowly, in different ways — through reporting and details of lawsuits, for example. The Tribune’s CPRA requests for emails among the key players laid bare the context of what had been taking place at the county government headquarters for years.
Over a period of several weeks, The Tribune reviewed thousands of emails that, along with court and other documents, exposed a pattern of behavior at top levels of county government that showed arrogance, favoritism and, especially, a ruinous mixing of personal and professional relationships that affected — negatively — the way the county government functioned.
County supervisors cleaned house, placing new and well-regarded professionals in the jobs of county administrative officer, assistant county administrative officer and human resources director.
Annie the dog
In summer of 2010, a Tribune columnist got wind of a dog named Annie that had been separated from its owner, Chuck Hoage, and adopted by another family as Hoage searched for her.
The columnist wrote a piece asking the new owners to give back Annie to her original owner, now that he had been located. Local radio host Dave Congalton took up the cry.
When her new owners declined to return Annie, Congalton and many of his supporters made a crusade out of reuniting Annie and Hoage. Some of them used the California Public Records Act to learn the identity of the new owner and find out where he or she lived. The Tribune made its own, separate request.
The County Counsel’s Office replied that the identity was protected under the law, not only to protect privacy but also to “eliminate possible intimidation and security concerns,” the counsel wrote.
However, in its response to one of Congalton’s followers, the county counsel inadvertently released the new owner’s identification — a potentially disastrous inversion of the privacy protections the CPRA is supposed to guarantee.
What followed was a frantic and unsuccessful effort by the county counsel and Congalton — one of several people who had the new owner’s name — to keep it quiet. This was accompanied by finger-pointing about whether the release of the name would lead to vandalism or worse.
“County f----d up on the redacting part of the adoption papers,” Congalton wrote to Supervisor Adam Hill, who was trying to settle the impasse. “I’m not going to give out the information, but Chuck (Hoage) has it. So do his friends.”
After the County Counsel’s Office repeated to Congalton that releasing the information was still illegal, Congalton sought to make clear that he received the information legally, and had “tried to act responsibly.” Ultimately, he wrote in an email to the county obtained by The Tribune under the CPRA, “The anger of the family is not going to be directed at me. Any lawsuit is going to come your way.”
Despite everyone’s best efforts, the cat — or in this case, the dog — was out of the bag; the name and address were known, and the new family was vilified and harassed. They gave Annie to Hoage, under duress.
COLAB and Adam Hill
As an example of the local political uses to which the CPRA can be put, in June of 2011, Andy Caldwell of the Coalition of Labor, Agriculture and Business sought communications from the county, especially Supervisor Adam Hill, regarding COLAB.
This followed Hill’s public criticism of COLAB on various grounds, including his claim that the group once held a fundraiser featuring an Obama impersonator in blackface. The group countered that the impersonator, Steve Bridges, does impressions of several presidents.
Hill later apologized for using tactless and “strident” language and for his broad-brush approach.
COLAB is, generally speaking, an anti-regulation, pro-growth, property rights organization, whereas Hill is a more environmentally leaning Democrat.There have been other politically tinged CPRA requests. For example, a candidate for appointment to the San Luis Obispo City Council sought to learn whether members of the Board of Supervisors tried to influence the council’s vote.
$100,000 salary club
After sifting through the county’s response to a CPRA salary request, The Tribune was able to report that one of the area’s largest employers — the county government — had 238 employees earning $100,000 or more in 2010 — nearly 10 percent of its workforce.
An analysis found that more than half of the members of the “$100,000 club” work in public safety.
The effort to examine county records was part of a larger project under which Tribune reporters filed public information requests to obtain salary data for the top 50 highest-paid employees in each city as part of the newspaper’s ongoing effort to review public employee compensation in San Luis Obispo County.
Los Osos sewer
The contentious Los Osos sewer project, which has dragged on for decades, has led to numerous requests for information about finances, decisions made, contracts awarded, personnel and many other matters.
In a typical action by attorneys on different sides of a contentious issue, representatives of both Downtown Brewing Co. and Joseph Kenney sought information from the county under the California Public Records Act. Kenney sued the pub after being badly hurt in a fight outside the business nearly five years ago.
Some CPRA requests to the county are unusual. For example, a woman wrote in 2010 asking for information regarding the county’s involvement in “organic microtechnology.” She wrote, “There has to be a program, contract or policy using this technology to invade personal privacy, starting with some agency even before 9/11 World Trade Center event.”
The county counsel replied that it does not have the information she sought under the CPRA because it is “not involved in any activities of the type you expressed concern about in your letter.”