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Public records audit in northern California shows faults

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    News Media Update         CALIFORNIA    

    News Media Update         CALIFORNIA         Freedom of Information    

Public records audit in northern California shows faults

  • Reporters and editors from the Contra Costa Times encountered numerous refusals for access to public documents

Aug. 5, 2004 — A group of 20 reporters and editors from the Contra Costa Times , a daily newspaper in northern California, encountered a variety of hurdles in obtaining public records from government, school and law enforcement officials.

The newspaper conducted an investigation of compliance with the state’s open records law for four months, seeking access to public records from 86 area governments, school boards and special districts, as well as 36 police departments. The results published July 25 showed that requests were denied more than half the time.

“It’s a huge problem,” Tom Newton, general counsel to the California Newspaper Publishers Association, told the Contra Costa Times . “Public access to information is the only way average citizens can maintain any level of control over their institutions.”

California’s Fair Political Practices Act of 1974 requires that certain financial forms must be available for public inspection during normal business hours at all government agencies, with no questions asked. However, only 37 of 86 agencies provided reporters access to those forms on the day of request. Public officials sometimes demanded to see reporters’ identification and asked why they wanted the public documents, the newspaper reported.

Sue Berg, assistant to the superintendent of the Mt. Diablo Unified School District in Concord, was among those who refused to provide the economic statements. “In this day and age, when I am told to watch for terrorists over my shoulder . . . [I am not] going to help someone who walked in off the street and didn’t identify themselves,” Berg told the Times .

The California Public Records Act requires public agencies to “make records promptly available.” It allows up to 10 days to produce records, but only for complicated requests.

Only 20 of 79 agencies granted immediate access to the employment contracts of the agency’s top executive official, such as a city manager or a school superintendent. However, the other agencies surveyed automatically imposed a 10-day waiting period for both the financial statements and employee contracts.

The Public Records Act cautions that the 10-day period should not be imposed “to delay or obstruct the inspection or copying of public records.”

Reporters waited an average of three days for the contracts, the Times reported, with a high of 27 days in the city of Martinez. Twelve agencies never produced their top official’s contract.

Peter Scheer, executive director of the California First Amendment Coalition, said part of the problem is the perception among public officials that the records belong to them. And most local agencies, Scheer added, fail to offer training in public records compliance.

“Most people want to think they can exercise discretion as an employee,” Scheer told the Times , “and that leads them to withholding access.

“An aspect of power is having control over information.”

TS


© 2004 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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