Lack of penalties allows San Diego Unified to disregard state’s public records law

As long as government employees are free to violate the state’s public records law with impunity, Californians will continue to be denied the fully transparent government promised to them under state law.

While California’s Public Records Act declares that governmental transparency is a “fundamental and necessary right of every person in this state,” the realization of this promise is severely undercut by the lack of any penalty for government officials who blatantly violate the law.

As a result, some agencies are comfortable ignoring the law entirely, adopting what can only be described as a “well, sue us” mentality.

This was the tactic employed by the Los Angeles County West Vector Control District — a local government funded through a supplemental fee included on residents’ property tax bill.

Beginning in 2014, TransparentCalifornia.com requested the district’s pay data as part of its effort to populate the site with the salaries of every government employee in the state.

Despite state law mandating a response within 10 days of its receipt, the district ignored the request and numerous follow-ups for years. Remarkably, even a certified mail letter warning of imminent legal action failed to elicit a response from the district.

It was only after a lawsuit was filed did the district finally acknowledge the request — at which point they provided all of the requested data just a few days after the suit was filed.

But shouldn’t the right to a transparent government apply to all Californians, and not just those with the time and resources to pursue costly litigation?

And it’s not just the smaller agencies who behave this way, even the massive San Diego Unified School District routinely flouts the provision of the law that requires “prompt” disclosure of public records.

Take Transparent California’s most recent request for salary data from the district as an example.

On June 12, the District replied and asserted that they would need approximately three months’ time in order to provide the requested information.

Yet the file that was ultimately provided was marked as being created and last modified on June 6 — indicating it had been in the school’s possession the entire time! An inquiry asking if it was normal policy for the school to delay production of readily available, existing records for nearly three months went unanswered.

In addition to violating the law, such unjustified delays are particularly troubling given the District’s recent adoption of a policy whereby it deletes all emails after only a year — creating a scenario where potentially responsive records could be deleted and withheld from a requester, purely as a result of the school’s habitually delayed response time.

Sadly, examples of governments flouting the mandates of California’s Public Records Act are much greater than the few mentioned here, which is why Assemblyman Rob Bonta, D-Oakland, sponsored AB1479 last session.

The bill would have allowed a court to impose a penalty of between $1,000 and $5,000 — paid directly to the requester — when a government unlawfully denied access to public records. While the fees were far too small to be a truly effective deterrent, it was still a step in the right direction. Unfortunately, despite having passed the Assembly by a 71-1 landslide, lobbying by government unions led to the bill’s functional demise in the Senate, where every word of the penalty provision was erased.

If the promise of a truly transparent government is ever to be realized, the Legislature has only one path forward: adopt the same approach for how private citizens are treated and impose penalties on those who violate the law.

In North Carolina, government employees who knowingly violate the state’s public records law can be held personally liable for the requester’s legal fees — a mechanism which ensures that all residents receive the fully transparent and accountable government they are entitled to.

The California Legislature should adopt a similar provision here.

There’s always been something unsettling about granting public officials immunity from crimes and other wrongdoing — but the case for immunity is particularly weak when it comes to those who intentionally deny Californians their “fundamental and necessary right” of a transparent government.

Indeed, much of the justification for granting government the power of taxation is the notion that those funds are used to serve the public in both a transparent and accountable fashion. Allowing government employees to freely ignore their obligations in this regard threatens to undermine that entire edifice.

The California Legislature put together a nearly perfect public records law. Now it just needs to make sure it’s actually followed.

Robert Fellner is research director at TransparentCalifornia.com — the state’s largest public pay and pension database — where he has made or overseen more than 10,000 public records requests to over 2,500 unique California governments. A condensed version of this commentary was first published in the OC Register.