Request for supervisor's emails may cost county thousands of dollars

Requests for the emails between Supervisor Bruce Gibson’s and his legislative aide, Cherie Aispuro, will run into tens of thousands of pages and could cost thousands of dollars in staff time to process, County Counsel Rita Neal said this week.

On Tuesday Neal explained why it has taken nearly four months to make available emails requested in November under the California Public Records Act by Julie Tacker of Los Osos. At the Board of Supervisors meeting on Tuesday, Neal went into detail about the process of examining the correspondence.

Neal has made this point before: Getting the information out to the public is desirable because it provides transparency in government, and is required under the law in any case.

However, she noted, it can take a lot of time, especially in a case like the Gibson-Aispuro emails, which cover the daily doings of an elected official and his chief aide.

Tacker requested emails between the duo after Gibson revealed his affair with Aispuro in November. She is looking for evidence of wrongdoing or impropriety.

The Tribune made a similar request, but, because of the volume, limited its inquiry to the first and last years Gibson held his county supervisor post. The Tribune published its analysis on Feb. 10.

Tacker is seeking the emails from all six years Gibson has been in office.

Neal said that, to date, “we have turned over approximately 1,300 pages. We are getting ready to turn over an additional 1,500 pages. Our best estimate is that we have 14,000 more pages to review and redact.”

One staff person has spent 80 to 100 hours perusing the emails so far.

Everything has to be double-checked by an attorney because there are many exemptions under the CPRA and other government codes to what can be made public. Most have to do with privacy and safety.

For example, Neal said, attorney-client privilege that might be revealed in an email has to be guarded, as does personal information such as home phone numbers. The county has to redact, or black out, that information when it makes the emails public.

“The exemptions are important to comply with, as they are necessary to protect people's privacy and to allow a government entity to conduct business in a way that serves the best interest of all concerned,” Neal wrote in an email to The Tribune.

Asked how much the Gibson-Aispuro and other searches might eventually cost, Neal wrote that “we are in the process of quantifying the expense to county taxpayers in regard to the amount of time spent on responding to Public Record Act requests.”

“At this time,” she went on, “I don't have that number, but I am hopeful we will have further information on this issue in a few weeks.”

The Gibson-Aispuro request is only the most high-profile effort by members of the public to make government workings more open under the CPRA. But there are many others.

“Our office either receives or assists with approximately 150 requests each year,” Neal wrote. “Some requests are fairly simple to respond to, and others are very time consuming.”

At the end of 2011, she wrote, when The Tribune sought information about the county and the CPRA, “we were able to estimate that the county received approximately 1,350 to 1,500 written requests per year.

“Most departments don't track verbal requests, although we know that certain departments receive numerous verbal requests, and if they are relatively simple to comply with, the documents are produced without asking the requester to put something in writing,” she continued.

Neal said other, less well-known requests also are time-consuming.

For example, Neal wrote, “My office is presently assisting the Planning Department in responding to a PRA request that asked for the following: ‘a copy of all documents relating to all money from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and subsidiary agencies that the county has dispersed since January 1, 2008.’"

She said there are more than 4,000 pages of records covered under the request.

“The Planning Department and our office (are) working diligently to review and respond to this request.”

Neal wrote that county departments work to comply with requests. “However,” she added, “it’s important to understand that many requests are very time consuming and cross over many departments.”