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Is Local Government Transparent Enough?

Audio

Aired 7/28/09

Two local news organizations, VoiceofSanDiego and the Union-Tribune, have had recent run-ins with San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders' office over freedom of information act requests. We talk about delays in getting information, what the law says and what recourse news organizations have when public information is not turned over.

This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. There are laws in place to make sure we all have access to public information from government agencies. Most of us are familiar with the Freedom of Information Act, known as FOIA, which covers federal agency records. There is also a similar California Public Records Act. But having the right to request public records and actually getting those records are sometimes two different things. Journalists from the San Diego Union-Tribune and the Voice of San Diego have been engaged recently in a battle of wits with Mayor Jerry Sanders’ office over requests for e-mails. And some local reporters complain that it's difficult to get public records from San Diego County agencies. For their part, government agencies complain that the number of public record requests has skyrocketed in recent years. The City of San Diego has just announced the hiring of an additional worker to handle public information requests, which have doubled from last year at this time. Joining me to discuss how local government is complying with the public’s right to know are my guests. Ricky Young is local government editor with the San Diego Union-Tribune. Hi, Ricky.

RICKY YOUNG (Local Government Editor, San Diego Union-Tribune): Good morning.

CAVANAUGH: And Rob Davis is with us, with the Voiceofsandiego.org. Hi, Rob.

DAVIS: Hey, Maureen, how are you?

CAVANAUGH: And also we have a third guest, Guylyn Cummins, an attorney specializing in First Amendment issues. She’ll be joining us in just a moment. She’s running a little late. Let me also tell everyone that we invite our audience to join our conversation. Have you ever tried using the Freedom of Information Act to gain access to government documents? Tell us about that process. Or do you think the press sometimes imposes a huge burden on public agencies to comply with information requests? You can tell us what you think. Give us your questions, your comments, the number is 1-888-895-5727, that’s 1-888-895-KPBS. And, Guylyn Cummins is with us but I’m going to give you just a few minutes to catch your breath because I know…

GUYLYN CUMMINS (Attorney): Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: So let me start with you, Ricky, because both the Union-Tribune and Voice of San Diego have stories to tell about requests for public information from the City of San Diego. And Union-Tribune reporters were accused of using intimidating language to a worker at city hall just last month while trying to get some financial records. Tell us that story.

YOUNG: Well, they became frustrated with a request that was not met or, really, more specifically with phone calls that were not returned from the mayor’s office when they were requesting some public records. Typically, we start with a phone call or a letter when we want public records from a public agency rather than immediately going to a written request. Sometimes we’ll call, and they did not get a call back and so they decided to do what the Public Records Act – I mean, this is a little known part of the Act that isn’t always used by media outlets. You know, the Act says the public records should be available for inspection during normal business hours. Typically, we’ll give the agency a, you know, the courtesy of, you know, a written request or something where they can take some time to think about it but in this case we weren’t getting response and so the reporter showed up at city hall and just asked to see the records, which is specifically what the law allows them to do. They ended up on a floor that does not have a, you know, a public greeting counter and so they tried to find some employees to help them and there were several who wanted to help them. Now what ended up happening was the mayor’s office happened to be there on another errand, they said, and intervened to stop the release of those records. And words were exchanged. There were extensive accounts of the incidents created by both the City and by the reporter, which we wrote about on our political blog and, you know, I mean, certainly there are people who have sided with the parties on both sides of the dispute.

CAVANAUGH: And now there are new signs on the 7th floor, basically, employees only.

YOUNG: Only – that’s right, only employees here, don’t you people from the public come, please.

CAVANAUGH: Well, you know, Guylyn, if we could back up just a little bit, one of the responses that the mayor’s office has to this particular incident is that government agencies are not required to just hand over documents to reporters when they show up at their door, that there’s a certain procedure that needs to be complied with. Is that the case?

CUMMINS: Actually, I don’t think so. I mean, I agree with everyone that public records are always open to inspection. If a record is privileged or in some way otherwise not producible, it should be plainly marked and then in that situation, the entity or the City agency gets ten days to respond and they get to tell you why they’re shielding it in a shroud of secrecy and you get to try and decide if they’re right and if don’t think they are, you take them to court and the court decides.

CAVANAUGH: And let’s go – move away from this particular incident and talk a little bit – ground us in what the Public Records Act is. Why do we have it?

CUMMINS: Actually, I think the preamble to it says it best: Public records and public business is a fundamental right of every citizen in this state to know. Our business should be conducted openly and publicly and any citizen, whether it’s the press or not, should be able to show up and look at the documents. Again, you know, secrecy should be the exception. And if there are truly reasons to keep records secret, they should be marked at the time the record is created so that any time a member of the public shows up all the rest of the records are available.

CAVANAUGH: And is there – Isn’t the fact that the Act is not very clear, is there a lot of wiggle room for agencies and government entities? Or is it really pretty straightforward? I’m looking at your face. It looks like it’s really pretty straightforward.

CUMMINS: I actually think it – There are some categories that I might say there’s some grayness but other than that, it is very clear. Unless a record has been excepted from production by California legislature, it must be produced.

CAVANAUGH: Well, let me move on to Ricky, go on, I’m coming to…

YOUNG: Well, I would just note, you know, in the end, the records that the reporters were seeking on the sixth floor of city hall turned out to be public records and we got them, you know, several days later. It’s not so much that we have any disagreements with the City about – in the end about what turns out to be a public record. I think more what’s happening, and we had a little bit about this in Sunday’s paper as well, is just – there’s a lot of delay as they decide whether to release it or not and the – what seems to be developing is a trend where the assumption is it’s not public, where the law says the exact opposite. That the assumption should be, from the get-go, it’s a public record and it should only be exempt from disclosure if there’s a reason to disclose it but there seems to be maybe a presumption going the wrong way. We obviously presume that it’s public because, you know, it’s created with public money and the public has a right to it but sometimes it seems like the City starts from a position of we assume this is private, you know, tell us why we should release it, but that’s not the case. The law requires it to be the other way.

CAVANAUGH: The U-T has also had a little bit of a struggle with the story of the e-mails that went on vacation. Could you tell us about that, Ricky?

YOUNG: Yes. The – An interesting, you know, new thing that both governments and the media are dealing with is what to do with e-mail. And we’ve made a lot of requests as has Rob, who’s on the phone, for e-mails from the City and I think we’re still establishing a process by which those can be released. There’s some things going on where the very people who sent the e-mails are deciding whether to release them. Some public agencies have a lawyer involved to look through and see what’s – what should be released and what isn’t. In some cases, the City is having the people who sent the e-mails look through them, which sort of presents, I think, a dicey situation. At any rate, we put in one request on May 11th that was not fulfilled until here in late July, and part of that process was employees, including the mayor’s spokesman, Darren Pudgil, going through the records to see if they would be releasing them and as part of that deliberative process, he took them with him to Martha’s Vineyard on vacation.

CAVANAUGH: And Rob Davis, you’ve documented your saga about trying to get access to City e-mails in an ongoing blog called Pudgil Watch, named after Jerry Sanders’ spokesman, Darren Pudgil. What were you looking for in those e-mails and when did you start that process?

DAVIS: Well, back in March, it became apparent to us that the city water department staff had been misrepresenting some of the challenges of implementing what they were calling a more fair plan to cut the city residents’ water use. And after we did a few stories on that, I sent in a request to try to figure out whether – I wanted e-mail, so I wanted to know whether it was a politically calculated decision and what had factored into the misrepresentations that were made to me and to the public. And so that led us – I was looking for e-mails sent by Gerry Braun, who’s the former U-T columnist who now works on the mayor’s staff and who is his kind of point guy on water, and Alex Ruiz, who’s the assistant director of the water department. And that led me down a sort of a long, three-month path trying to get those records.

CAVANAUGH: And you had some but you still had hundreds of e-mails that weren’t delivered to you, so what kind of pressure could you and Voice of San Diego exert on the mayor’s office?

DAVIS: Yeah, well, you know, I went back and forth with Darren for the better part of two months, trying to get him to release any of the e-mails. There were about 1100 – or, 1400, sorry, 1400 that were responses. And he wouldn’t really commit to a date of when he was going to release them even though state law requires agencies to tell you when they’re going to release records. And so finally, after about two months, I just said, listen, I’m going to start blogging about this. I don’t want to do it. You don’t want me to do it. But we’re going to start writing about this and unless you give me the e-mails by Friday and, sure enough, the e-mails came in by that Friday. And when we got them, there were about 700, half of them, that had been excluded using what the City calls the deliberative process privilege, what’s known as that, essentially saying that releasing those 700 e-mails, the public was better off if those e-mails were kept secret because releasing them would have kept city employees from having a candid conversation about policy. And the law requires you, if you’re trying to apply that, to narrowly construe that exemption, and I didn’t really think that keeping 700 out of 1400 e-mails was narrowly construing it. So we started writing about it and eventually threatened to sue them.

CAVANAUGH: Well, now I have to tell you that we did ask Darren Pudgil, Mayor Sanders’ spokesperson, to be a participant on this show and talk about how the mayor’s office deals with public records requests. He was unable to come because of the city council meeting this morning but he did send a statement. It’s a rather lengthy statement, long and specific. We’re posting the entirety of it on our website at KPBS.org but just for our discussion’s sake, I just want to pull some general excerpts from it. Darren Pudgil says ‘the City of San Diego takes its responsibility to provide records to the public very seriously. However, over the last year the number of public records requests by the media and others has jumped dramatically. If this trend continues, we will have to respond to more than twice as many requests this year as we did in all of last year. To keep up with this rise in requests, the City of San Diego is hiring a contract employee to process them. Also worth noting, the City keeps records in formats that serve the public’s needs, not reporter’s needs. The City is receiving requests for information that require it to design and run computer programs solely for the purpose of providing that information.’ And the statement goes on to say ‘the public records process is a partnership between the government and the media. Mayor Sanders, who was overwhelmingly reelected last year, in large measure because of his commitment to honest, transparent government, remains dedicated to releasing documents to the media in a timely fashion even as the number of requests has risen dramatically and even if taxpayers must foot the bill.’ And Mr. Pudgil adds a question for our listeners, which I am paraphrasing, should taxpayers pay the cost involved for formatting information to reporters’ requests or should the media outlet pick up that cost? And that is, in part, the statement by Darren Pudgil, spokesman to Mayor Jerry Sanders. And we are talking about access to public information on These Days. Our number is 1-888-895-5727. I think this is a good time to take a short break. When we return, we will continue talking about the Freedom of Information Act and the California Public Records Act and how they’re being applied here in San Diego, and taking your calls. The number is 1-888-895-5727.

[break]

CAVANAUGH: Welcome back. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. Our topic right now is how local government is complying with the public’s right to know. My guests are Guylyn Cummings – Cummins, that is, an attorney specializing in First Amendment rights, Ricky Young from the San Diego Union-Tribune, and Rob Davis with the voiceofsandiego.org. We are taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. And I just read a statement or at least part of it from the mayor’s spokesman, Darren Pudgil. And you wanted to respond to some of that Ricky.

YOUNG: Yeah. Darren obviously makes a good point that the number of requests has gone up. Last year there were 45 for the whole year; so far this year, there’ve been 63, so that is obviously an uptick. But to some extent, the work heaped on the mayor’s office is of its own creation due to a policy of theirs that the mayor’s office handles all media public records requests. There are public information or public relations people in – there’s 16 of them elsewhere in city government and if those people were able to handle our requests that would obviously spread the workload so that the four media relations people working for the mayor didn’t have to handle all those requests. So now they’ve agreed to hire someone in sort of a paralegal position, trained by the City Attorney’s office, to handle some of these requests but that person will work for people in positions of much more responsibility and I think that work will end up being reviewed and so I don’t know. It’ll be interesting to see whether that, in fact, speeds along some of the requests.

CAVANAUGH: And, Rob, also I want to give you a chance to respond to this statement by Darren Pudgil.

DAVIS: Well, I mean, what they did with us, I think, is inexcusable. I mean, the – the e-mails that – after we threatened to sue them, they ended up releasing about half of the e-mails they had kept secret. I mean, they were things like e-mails we had sent to the mayor’s office staff, e-mails that an activist had copied the mayor’s office staff on that had also come to people in the media. You know, producing e-mails, I don’t think is that hard. One thing I learned from this process was that when we requested the e-mails, the people on staff had produced the responsive e-mails to the mayor’s office staff within a day. And so to argue that it’s somehow onerous to, you know, comply with the pledge that the mayor has made to be transparent, I mean, they’re just not living up to that promise, you know, when it comes to – when it comes to our experience, they’re just absolutely not.

CAVANAUGH: And, Guylyn, isn’t it – the issue of e-mails, though, isn’t that a tricky issue for compliance?

CUMMINS: Actually, I don’t think it should be at all, and I would agree that in the age of electronic information, when things can easily be coded, if it’s truly privileged or secret or, for some reason, protected electronically, the information should be accessible at the drop of a pin and only blocked information, you know, should we have to argue and fight about. I’ve been involved in a couple of cases where the government represented that it was going to be $60,000.00 to get information or $10,000.00 because they had to buy another server or, you know, some other excuse and when the court put them to their proof, they couldn’t actually meet that burden and, in fact, the information was produced in a matter of, you know, hours or days. I’ve been involved in a third case where the government was making money by selling it in a certain electronic format and because they could make so much money doing it, they didn’t want to give it to the press for free. And, of course, the press are the eyes and the ears of the public. They should be out there reporting. They shouldn’t be footing extra costs or extra bills to keep the public informed.

CAVANAUGH: Let’s take a caller now. We have Patrick calling us from Imperial County. Good morning, Patrick. Welcome to These Days.

PATRICK (Caller, Imperial County): Good morning. How are you?

CAVANAUGH: Great.

PATRICK: I run a small news website out here. We concentrate on government, business, housing and education. And one of the issues that I face out here on a weekly basis is getting copies of legal files, things that are in the court systems currently. And out here they charge us fifty cents a page to get the file. Now I know that doesn’t sound like a lot but, as Guylyn is probably aware, a legal file can be hundreds and hundreds of pages thick. And when you’re a small outfit, that ends up being a substantial expense. My personal opinion is that we shouldn’t have to pay anything for it, it’s already been paid for once. I would be glad to stand at the copy machine and make the copy myself rather than have a clerk do it. The records are not available on an electronic basis. You have to physically go down to the Clerk’s office, and they’re very helpful down there. They can pull it up real quick. But that’s one of the issues that we face and that’s not a new issue. That’s, I’m sure, been going on for a long time. And I would submit that as there are more smaller news organizations and a lot of them that may not be aware of all the public records laws that are out there and – and that making the information available. Some of the best information I have got are on depositions from civil lawsuits that would not come to public light unless there was a news organization covering that particular case on a daily basis and was actually in court. And out in Imperial County that’s not necessarily the case all the time.

CAVANAUGH: Well, thank you for your call, Patrick, very much. When does it become – Does it ever become the media’s responsibility to pay, like Patrick, for the copies and so forth?

CUMMINS: Well, there are provisions in the California Public Records Act that supposedly limit it to the actual costs so whatever it actually costs you to make the copy is the only thing you’re supposed to charge. The court system is slightly different because it’s governed by the First Amendment so it’s really a different, you know, set of laws that apply.

CAVANAUGH: I see. Let’s take another call. Pete is calling from Laguna Niguel. Good morning, Pete. Welcome to These Days.

PETE (Caller, Laguna Niguel): Good morning. Yeah, I’ve had problems with my homeowners association which are basically government agencies. They have the power to tax and the power to take away your home. And they have a requirement under California state law to provide certain documents, and sometimes they don’t. Or they give you the runaround and they give you a hard time. It’s very frustrating as a homeowner to get access to some of the information, financial information. It took me a year and a half to get a copy of a check that the association had written for $55,000.00. It bounced and it cost us, well, they’re still negotiating with the contractor but about $4,000.00 in late fees and interest charges. The…

CAVANAUGH: Well, Pete, thank you for the call. I’m sorry. It’s kind of a little bit off what we’re talking about but access to information, in the larger sense, I wonder when, for instance, Rob said that he was just about – his organization, voiceofsandiego.org, said that he was just about to file a lawsuit to get these e-mails. And I’m wondering, when does that come into play for either a citizen or a media outlet? When do they file that lawsuit?

CUMMINS: Well, generally you keep the government agency’s feet to the fire so within ten days you actually get the exceptions that they’re going to rely on set forth in writing and then you can evaluate those reasons against what you know from maybe outside sources. Then you file a California Public Records Act lawsuit and the court then jumps in and decides it. And if you win, you get your attorney fees and costs.

CAVANAUGH: I see. And so, Rob, has the Voice of San Diego ever filed a lawsuit for public records?

DAVIS: No, but we came awful close.

CAVANAUGH: Yeah.

DAVIS: No, that’s – that was the first for us and – and, I mean, quite honestly, from a taxpayer and good governance standpoint, it’s a little unfortunate that – that the mayor’s office let it get to that point. I mean, certainly, San Diego citizens are not well served by paying our legal bills unless it is to compel the disclosure of documents that should be readily disclosed. And, you know, outlets like mine, the Union-Tribune, or, you know, somebody who just is interested in city hall should not have to go to that length to get documents. I mean, it’s just absolutely ridiculous.

CAVANAUGH: Let’s take another call. Mel is calling from Hillcrest. Good morning, Mel. Welcome to These Days.

MEL (Caller, Hillcrest): Yes, good morning. I wanted to ask Guylyn what her response is when the city cites deliberative process as a defense against releasing documents.

CUMMINS: Well, unfortunately, deliberative process is kind of one of those gray areas so you really have to kind of drill down and see whether or not you think your argument has merit and that’s because I think it was about ten years ago there was a California Supreme Court case that kind of construed that privilege broadly. Bottom line is, it’s almost a fact-by-fact situation and you really have to drill down and see if you think they’re telling you the truth or not. There is substantial law out there that says, you know, the government needs to debate and decide issues in public and if they’re doing it seriotum, by, you know, e-mails or telephone calls between a few, you know, city councilmen or county supervisors, that’s not allowed. So, again, it’s a fact-by-fact, you know, situation that you have to decide.

CAVANAUGH: What is deliberative process? What does it mean? Is it an exception?

CUMMINS: There is an exception. It’s kind of a privilege but basically I think Rob described it pretty well. It’s – The government, until they kind of formalize what their process is and their situation, they do a lot of investigation and, you know, turning over stones, and not all of that has to be made public.

CAVANAUGH: I see. Ricky, on your website, the U-T has talked about the quest for documents and you talk about the Public Records Act and so forth. And you also list a couple of stories written because of your quest for public information and receiving documents that you needed. Tell us about one of those stories.

YOUNG: Well, let’s see, I’ll just talk about one that comes to freshly to mind because we had it in the paper Saturday. We, like the Voice, went after a batch of e-mails and finally got our hands on them last week and in there was an interesting back and forth with the Parks director and the mayor’s office answering a reporter’s question about how loud the plan to play barking dog noises to shoo away the seals from Children’s Pool beach in La Jolla would be. And the Parks director told the mayor’s office it would be 109 decibels, which we knew from a recent story about train whistles was about the sound of a rock concert. And the Parks director’s information given to the mayor’s office was forwarded to the reporter without that information about the decibel level. And the mayor’s Director of Special Projects, who Rob mentioned a little bit ago, is Gerry Braun, a former U-T columnist, was asked to take another go at the Parks director’s estimate of the sound level and crafted something that said, ehh, it’s not determined yet. It’s on a need to know basis. And so, you know, the public was denied that information that came from the Parks director. Now the City makes the case that they really hadn’t determined what level the sound would have been at but I think it was an interesting exercise in what public records can do, which is show us how the City deals with this kind of information and so…

CAVANAUGH: Yeah, exactly. And, Rob, I wonder where Voice of San Diego has used the Public Records Act?

DAVIS: Oh, gosh, I mean, we use it almost on a daily basis. I file dozens of requests a year, everything from getting the city council members’ water usage statistics at their residences to, you know, finding out how policy was discussed to figuring out, you know, what bonuses somebody got. I mean, it’s just an absolutely indispensable part of my job as an investigative journalist. I mean, without that tool, we would be severely hampered in what we do. And what we’re doing is trying to hold people accountable for the decisions that they make and trying to allow the public to have an honest dialogue about things. And there is this sort of resistance to that, that we have been getting, that I don’t really understand. There’s a sort of insularity in government that there’s – as if there’s something that they’re afraid of and that they’re a private business and they’re not doing the public, taxpayers’ business, and that’s simply not the case.

CAVANAUGH: Ricky.

YOUNG: Yeah, we rely heavily on public records as well. We’ve done a number of more serious things than this business about the seals but it – You know, the very basic reporting of going to a meeting and saying what happened, you can get on City TV 24, you know, you can see for yourself what happened at the meeting. What we try to bring to the table is what’s really going on, and this is a vital tool for helping people figure that out. We had a big series a couple of months ago about city employee payroll and, you know, we relied heavily on a database of – that said exactly what city employees are paid. You know, there’s a lot of rhetoric that goes on on that subject, which is obviously very touchy in the City of San Diego but we were able to go through a database and – and come up with some real information on that subject. So…

DAVIS: I do think there’s one point worth making and that is that particularly through my experience in San Diego, governments want you to file these requests if you want information. If I’m trying to get information out of the water department, they’re – they don’t just say, okay, well, we’ll look that up and we’ll get it back to you, or you can find it here. I mean, they say file a records request for it. So, I mean, to a certain extent, when they complain about the burden of this, they’re bringing it on themselves. I mean, I just – I find it lamentable that the City is complaining about its burden of sharing information with reporters or with the public.

CAVANAUGH: Let’s take one more call. Jim in City Heights. Good morning, Jim. Welcome to These Days.

JIM (Caller, City Heights): Yes, hello.

CAVANAUGH: Hi.

JIM: My experience with the city politicians and the city lawyers has been kind of disparate. I find the lawyers to be honest brokers. In particular, I dealt with Ray Palmucci, who was a sharp guy and tried to help out. But my request for basic technical information from the city was met with obfuscation, dishonesty and just a complete lack of cooperation. It took me about four or five months to get some fairly basic data.

CAVANAUGH: And what were you asking for?

JIM: Water pressure.

CAVANAUGH: Okay. And no – and you – they just wouldn’t comply with your request?

JIM: They simply would not comply and several times said that they did not have the information. They said it was not available, and then they said it was a matter of national security.

CAVANAUGH: National security. Well, thank you for that call, Jim. I wonder, is there a reluctance of government agencies to comply with requests like this? And why, Guylyn?

CUMMINS: Actually, I have found in the cases that I’ve done over the last 25 years, they fight the hardest if it’s something truly embarrassing or shows culpability or liability on behalf of the government agency. And I’ve seen some pretty bizarre examples of how hard they would fight to keep something that was truly public private.

CAVANAUGH: Well, can you give us one of those examples?

CUMMINS: Yes. One of the officials in San Diego had a claim for sexual harassment against the individual and a whistleblower had leaked it out. So it wasn’t like that the client that I represented didn’t already have a copy of it. We did. And the County, in this case, insisted that they did not have a claim and when we finally went to court and got it, in fact, there was a claim. They were just saying it was a prelude to a claim so it was a piece of paper that said, you know, this is a claim and it was kind of a game of semantics as to why it was being hidden.

CAVANAUGH: And let me ask you both quickly, Ricky and Rob, is there a climate down at the mayor’s office now? I mean, is everybody going to get along or do you think that this is going to continue? Are you going to have problems continually getting the records that you request? Ricky, what do you think?

YOUNG: Well, they’re doing their job and we’re doing ours and it’s all done on a very professional level so I think people are getting along. I think, you know, the broader question is will the public have what it needs in terms of a watchdog on city government? And, you know, I can tell you we intend to continue to provide that service, so…

CAVANAUGH: And, Rob, the fight is still on?

DAVIS: Yeah, I mean, there are two ways for it to go. I mean, either the City can comply and help the public understand the City’s business in an easy fashion or the City can throw up roadblocks and make us file lawsuits to get information. And there are many attorneys who would be happy to take those cases and if that’s what it comes to then that’s what it comes to.

CAVANAUGH: Well, I want to thank all my guests so much for talking with us and taking calls this morning. Guylyn Cummins, an attorney specializing in First Amendment issues, thank you for being here.

CUMMINS: Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: Hey, Rob Davis, thanks so much, voiceofsandiego.org.

DAVIS: Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: And Ricky Young, local government editor with the San Diego Union-Tribune.

YOUNG: Thanks for having me.

CAVANAUGH: And I want to thank everyone who called that we couldn’t get to. I’d like to remind you, you can post your comments to – on our website, KPBS.org/TheseDays and that’s where you can also see the full response from Darren Pudgil, Director of Commuications for the Office of Mayor Jerry Sanders. You’ve been listening to These Days. Stay with us. We’ll continue in just a few moments here on KPBS.

Statement on the request for public records by Darren Pudgil, director of communications, Office of San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders:

The City of San Diego takes its responsibility to provide records to the public very seriously.

However, over the last year, the number of records requests by the media and others has jumped dramatically. Last year, the mayor's office received 45 requests. So far this year, which is barely half-way complete, we have received 63 requests.

If this trend continues, we will have responded to more than twice as many requests this year as we did in all of last year.

Why has the number of requests increased? This can probably be best answered by your panelists.

Regardless, to keep up with this rise in requests, the City of San Diego is hiring a contract-employee to process them. This person will work approximately 25 hours per week and will be paid on an hourly basis.

With regard to the situation involving the voiceofsandiego.org, there was a misunderstanding between the mayor's office and the city attorney's office. The person processing this request misinterpreted advice from the deputy city attorney regarding what should be released and what should be withheld. Steps have been taken to ensure such a misunderstanding does not happen again.

With regard to the recent incident involving the two Union-Tribune reporters who came to City Hall seeking records, it should be noted that - contrary to the opinion of some journalists -- the law does not require records to be released on demand. In this particular case, the records being sought contained private medical information about a city employee. Had we provided this information, the city would have been in violation of the law and exposed itself to potential litigation. While this may have not pleased the Union-Tribune, the City stands by its decision not to produce such records.

Also worth noting, the City keeps records in formats that serve the public's needs, not reporters' needs.

Increasingly, the City is receiving requests for information that require it to design and run computer programs solely for the purpose of providing that information.

A recent example was the Union-Tribune Watchdog Team's series on employee compensation, which included errors regarding individual salaries.

The City keeps payroll records for the same reason that any employer keeps them: to ensure the accuracy of its payroll and to comply with the numerous and complex laws that govern income and taxation.

The Watchdog Team wanted that information to be provided in a format that would allow it to easily analyze the information and draw conclusions from it. Unfortunately, the City does not keep the information in such a format. It has no reason to.

The City told the Union-Tribune that it would provide the information in that format if the Union-Tribune paid the cost of designing and running a computer program specifically for that purpose. The Union-Tribune balked at the cost, which was $1,900. They saved their publisher some money, but published inaccurate information as a result.

It would be interesting to hear from KPBS listeners on this topic. Do they think that taxpayers should have paid that $1,900, or do they think the Union-Tribune should have paid?

At the end of the day, the public records process is a partnership between government and the media. Mayor Sanders, who was overwhelmingly re-elected last year in large measure because of his commitment to honest, transparent government, remains dedicated to releasing documents to the media in a timely fashion, even as the number of requests has risen dramatically, and even if taxpayers must foot the bill.

Comments

Avatar for user 'dan83'

dan83 | July 28, 2009 at 9:14 a.m. ― 4 years, 8 months ago

Shouldn't there be some punishment in place if records are not produced as demanded by the law? If this was a private company, there would be all kinds of fines involved.

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Avatar for user 'dan83'

dan83 | July 28, 2009 at 9:23 a.m. ― 4 years, 8 months ago

Also, to answer Pudgil, yes the taxpayer (ie the government agency involved) should have to plan this into their budget. If they have responsbility enforced by law, why should another party have to pay for their responsibilty?

How is 63 requests in 6 months considered high demand?

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