What’s A Public Document?
Thursday, July 10, 2014
Aired 7/10/14 on KPBS Midday Edition.
What's A Public Document?
Guylyn Cummins, Media Law Attorney
Scott Lewis, CEO, Voice of San Diego
Donna Frye, Vice President, CalAware
San Diego District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis released a document Wednesday that several media outlets — including KPBS — had been trying to get her to produce for weeks using public records requests.
It was a letter of recommendation she wrote to the University of San Diego for the son of Jose Susumo Azano, the wealthy foreign national accused of making illegal campaign contributions to Dumanis' campaign for mayor.
Dumanis released the letter not because she thinks its a matter of public record but because she says the letter was becoming a distraction.
Under California's Public Records Act a public record is defined broadly:
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.
There are some exemptions, such as records pertaining to pending litigation along with personnel, medical, or similar files, the disclosure of which would constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.
In a letter to Dumanis from media law attorney Guylyn Cummins on behalf of a coalition of San Diego media outlets, including KPBS, Cummins argues:
Put simply,letters written by the District Attorney, on official stationary, exerting the District Attorney's power and influence, are public records subject to public disclosure under the CPRA.
As reported by UT San Diego, there are some grey areas when it comes to public records.
The California Supreme Court is set to decide in 2015 if politicians private emails are subject to public disclosure.
Currently, enforcement of California’s Public Records Act becomes unclear when personal devices, like smartphones, are used to conduct public business.
Former San Diego City Councilwoman Donna Frye emphasized the importance of ensuring personal devices used for government business not be exempt from the public record.
“Just a few months ago we tried to bring forward a ballot measure to the city council... that would have made it clear that even if you use a personal device, if you are conducting the public’s business, with that device, it is still a public record,” Frye said.
Media law attorney Guylyn Cummins agrees that public officials should not conduct work-related business on their private devices.
“The California Public Records Act is exceedingly broad. If you’re doing anything in your capacity as a public official, public employee, public business then you need to expect that you are going to turn that information over,” Cummins said.
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