Records laws an essential news tool

When the county’s top two administrators, David Edge and Gail Wilcox, were canned in 2009, the public realized that there were problems at the top levels of county government.

But they didn’t know the details.

They might never have found out the scope of the dysfunction had it not been for the California Public Records Act.

Using the CPRA — created in 1968 as a California version of the federal Freedom of Information Act — The Tribune sought an investigative report, and later correspondence among the key players in the Edge-Wilcox instance. Under the CPRA, the county government had to turn them over.

The hundreds of pages and thousands of emails revealed a workplace culture that invited inappropriate and even outlandish behavior.

The dismissals led the Board of Supervisors and its new administrators to make significant reforms.

Members of the public, who foot the bill for county government and are affected by it in countless ways, went along for the ride through The Tribune because the CPRA enabled them to do so.

Similarly, the many stories The Tribune has written detailing city and county government salary and other information throughout San Luis Obispo County — some of which documented questionable spending — have relied heavily on CPRA requests to a potpourri of local government agencies. It also has used the CPRA to glean information from Cal Poly, Atascadero State Hospital and other government agencies.

“The public records act has been invaluable to The Tribune over the years, helping us carry out our role as a government watchdog, whether it’s looking over the shoulders of the county board, a city council, school board or other government agency,” Executive Editor Sandra Duerr said. “When information isn’t readily available — or is initially denied — we have routinely used public records requests to obtain it.”

In an effort to learn more about how the CPRA functions at the county level, The Tribune sat down with County Counsel Warren Jensen and Deputy County Counsel Rita Neal.

The Tribune also looked at who has asked for which documents from the county under the CPRA. It gleaned that information from the County Counsel’s Office and then, using the CPRA, looked at some actual recent requests.

Not surprisingly, media outlets have used the CPRA profusely at the county level. In addition to The Tribune’s many requests for information, other local news publications including New Times and The Santa Maria Times have filed requests, as have news organizations elsewhere — the (San Francisco) Bay Area News Group, for example.

Not all CPRA requests go to the County Counsel’s Office, Neal stressed.

“Many ‘run of the mill’ requests do not,” Neal said, nor are all the inquiries in writing. Sometimes a particular department — planning, say — will deal with someone at the counter who asks for a document, and they are able to oblige.

“Some departments are savvy,” Jensen said, and know how to process a CPRA request. He mentioned the Sheriff’s Office, County Clerk-Recorder and Public Works.

Other departments, such as Veterans Services, the Tax Collector-Treasurer and the county library, rarely cross paths with the CPRA, they said.

The county assessor, on the other hand, “almost always comes to us,” Jensen said.

Even though many CPRA requests are handled by department, a good number find their way to the county counsel.

Given the relatively loose nature of reporting CPRA requests in the county, Neal said it is difficult to quantify the total. But she said she believed it to be around 150 annually.

She said there have been times when a department employee spent as many as 20 hours a week working on requests. “It’s very tedious,” Jensen added.

Exceptions to the law make it all the more tedious, they said. Under Government Code Section 6254, there are “dozens of exceptions” to when a public agency must disclose information under the CPRA.

Even within the county, separate departments have individual rules they must follow under state law. Many of them involve the privacy of people who are, for example, under the umbrella of the Department of Social Services.

In many cases, not just with the DSS, there is information protected by attorney-client privilege in an email, and the county counsel must slog through each document, seek that information out and redact it.

There is also personal, medical and even criminal information that is protected, they said.

Discerning what is public information and what is not is “the name of the game,” Jensen said.

The reasons for seeking information under the CPRA vary widely. Sometimes it is an attorney looking for a document that will bolster his case. For example, it could be a company that bid for a project, lost it to another outfit and now wants to see all the internal communication leading to the decision.

Occasionally, it’s political. Inquiries have been filed regarding the Los Osos sewer; the Air Pollution Control District and its work involving the Oceano Dunes and Nipomo Mesa; and Supervisor Adam Hill’s emails, sought by his political enemies in the Coalition of Labor, Business and Agriculture.

The request also could be from a prisoner, or an attorney representing a client he believes was mishandled in county custody.

Asked if there has been an uptick in requests in recent years, Neal said she couldn’t quantify that, but “I tend to think anecdotally we’re getting more.”That does not bother them, Jensen and Neal said.

“It’s part of our job,” Neal said. “It is the public’s right to know.”

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