Kevin Johnson, the mayor of Sacramento, and the Sacramento City Attorney are now resisting efforts by two separate news organizations to gain access to public records, according to a recent filing in a California court.
The development is the latest twist in an unusual public records dispute in which Johnson has sued his own city and the Sacramento News & Review in an effort to prevent the release of email requested by the newspaper under the California Public Records Act. Now both the mayor and the city’s attorney are trying to keep Deadspin, which also requested the email, out of the case.
Johnson, like many other officials around the country, has been criticized for using non-governmental email accounts to conduct public business. But a government official’s use of a private email account does not shield public records from disclosure under the Public Records Act.
Under California law, a public record includes “any writing containing information relating to the conduct of the public's business prepared, owned, used, or retained by any state or local agency regardless of physical form or characteristics.”
Earlier this year, the Sacramento News and Review filed a California Public Records Request to better understand how Johnson uses his various email accounts. The Sacramento Bee also filed a similar public records request. And Deadspin, a sports news website owned by GawkerMedia, also submitted a similar public records request over the summer.
After the News & Review filed its records request the Sacramento City Attorney indicated that, absent a court order, the email would be released. Before that could happen, however, Johnson sued the city and the newspaper, seeking an injunction that would prevent the city from making the emails public.
At least some of the requested email messages reportedly relate to Johnson’s involvement with the National Conference of Black Mayors, a group he briefly led before it filed for bankruptcy.
As mayor of Sacramento, Johnson reportedly tasked members of his office to work on NCBM matters.
In his petition to prevent the release of the records, Johnson claims that he is acting solely “in his official capacity as the former President elect of the NCBM and not as the Mayor . . . .” The trustee for NCBM, Edwin Palmer, is also listed as a petitioner in the case, along with NCMB and Johnson.
However, according to Deadspin, the board of NCBM passed a resolution in early July that “refutes any involvement” in the lawsuit.
It is rare for a public official to sue to prevent the release of public records. The publisher of the News & Review, Jeff VonKaenel, told ABC10 that he’s “been doing this for 40 years . . . [and has] never ever heard of public officials filing, trying to file an injunction or a lawsuit, preventing people from filing public information requests.”
Johnson maintains that more than 100 of the requested email messages are covered by the attorney-client privilege. According to the Mayor’s petition, the News & Review “stubbornly refused to modify its CPRA requests to exclude” the records Johnson asserts are privileged.
A privilege log filed in connection with the case, however, shows that many persons other than Johnson and his attorneys received the messages he asserts are privileged.
While the underlying case between Johnson, the city of Sacramento, and the News & Review continues, Deadspin filed a letter with the judge overseeing the Johnson case asking to join the proceedings. The parties have opposed the effort.