Fletcher, Gaspar Urge County To Fulfill Records Requests In Timely Fashion During Pandemic
Two San Diego County supervisors say they oppose the county’s decision to indefinitely delay responses to some requests for public government records during the coronavirus pandemic.
A local journalism association last week called on the county to resume fulfilling all requests and asked elected officials to respond to the change after multiple San Diego news outlets reported on the policy.
Under state law, documents compiled or created by government agencies while conducting the public’s business, such as emails and contracts, should be made available to residents upon request. Officials are required to respond to inquiries within a set timeframe. But county officials have cited an exception at least 31 times to requests for COVID-related documents and said it may not reply until after the region’s emergency declaration is lifted.
Supervisor Nathan Fletcher told KPBS Midday Edition on Wednesday that initial delays were understandable because of the large flood of requests and challenges caused by the pandemic, but now all requests should be fulfilled.
“I think we’re many months into (the pandemic) now and so I would be supportive of a change in posture and ensuring we’re fully complying with the records request,” Fletcher said.
A spokesman said Fletcher later relayed his position to the county counsel and chief administrative officer in a meeting.
Supervisor Kristin Gaspar also told KPBS she disagrees with the county’s policy to delay responses to some records requests.
“While I am empathetic to concerns raised by county counsel on the time-consuming nature of these requests during a public health emergency, I personally favor making our local government as transparent, responsive and trustworthy as possible,” Gaspar said Thursday in a text message. “Therefore, I do not support delays and have made my decision known with county counsel.”
The San Diego chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists posted to social media on May 15 an open letter urging the county to continue fulfilling requests and called on elected officials to share their stance on the policy.
NBC San Diego reported in late March that a letter from County Counsel Thomas Montgomery notified people seeking records that “staff does not have the capacity to respond to your request until further notice” and that the county didn’t expect to respond “until the emergency order has been lifted.”
Montgomery said the benefit of the public’s right to obtain the records was outweighed by ensuring employees were available to respond to the public health crisis.
A county spokesman at the time pointed to some other jurisdictions, including the state, that were taking similar actions, NBC reported.
County spokesman Michael Workman told KPBS in an email Thursday that 31 requests for COVID-related documents had been delayed but as of last week more than 500 requests had been fulfilled since March 1.
“Clearly we have fulfilled the vast majority of requests during the pandemic,” Workman said.
Workman said he was unsure how that compared to past record request volumes because he could not immediately review historical data. He also said some of the 500 were related to COVID but did not provide specific numbers.
Supervisors Greg Cox, Dianne Jacob and Jim Desmond did not oppose the county’s decision to delay some requests in statements emailed to KPBS on Thursday.
“We have responded to most of the public records requests, but we have said that there are some requests that may not be initially fulfilled. That doesn’t mean they won’t ever be fulfilled. It just means that right now we are in the middle of this crisis and we have to prioritize our response,” said Cox, who chairs the board of elected officials.
He said officials have stressed to the public the need for patience and understanding during the pandemic and that extends to media seeking public records.
Jacob said she values transparency and cited the 500 requests filled by county employees.
“About 35 to 40 requests have been delayed because they are COVID related. Despite the health crisis being the top priority, even some of those are being fulfilled if county staff has the information available. It is my expectation that county staff will continue to do all it can to fulfill the outstanding requests when the current crisis allows,” Jacob said in an email.
Desmond, who initially deferred comment to Cox, said in a later email he also supports transparency and referenced that county employees have fulfilled hundreds of requests.
“I trust County staff will continue to fulfill them when the crisis subsides,” he said in the email.
A previous emergency declaration during the region’s hepatitis A outbreak lasted nearly five months. Government emails obtained through a public records request revealed a delayed response to that crisis.