Fresno-area city sued for public records violation

After routinely complying with Transparent California’s annual request for employee pay data for more than half a decade, the City of Parlier is now refusing to provide this information for the 2019 year — forcing the government watchdog to take the city to court.

Today, the Nevada Policy Research Institute filed a lawsuit in Fresno County Superior Court alleging Parlier has committed multiple violations of the California Public Records Act.

The lawsuit stems from NPRI’s work on its TransparentCalifornia.com website — which publishes the pay and pension data of 2.8 million California public employees from over 2,500 unique government agencies.

In response to Transparent California’s annual request for 2019 employee compensation data, Parlier provided none of the information requested and instead supplied only a listing of various job titles and their associated pay rates.

The refusal to provide basic employee name and salary data for the 2019 year is a marked reversal from past years, which saw the city provide this information without issue for the 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2018 years.

Parlier City Attorney Neal Costanzo repeatedly refused to provide any additional records beyond the nonresponsive report initially provided, falsely claiming the city is not obligated to “create a new document” in response to a request for public records.

Costanzo also repeatedly refused to comply with multiple provisions of state law, including those that require public agencies to assist the requester in finding information responsive to the purpose of the request.

Flawed incentives?

2019 was the first full year that Costanzo served as the city attorney for Parlier, suggesting that his hiring could be related to the city’s dramatic reversal in how it responds to routine public records requests.

As a contract employee, Costanzo is paid a monthly retainer of $3,000, which covers his appearance at, and work related to, monthly council meetings. Additional services are then billed at the cost of $160 per hour, with any litigation incurring a $170 hourly rate.

But given Costanzo’s role as de facto public records officer, this arrangement could result in a perverse set of incentives, wherein unlawfully withholding public records leads to litigation, which in turn financially benefits the very person responsible for the unlawful withholding.

Transparent California Executive Director Robert Fellner was stunned to see a city attorney so unwilling to comply with such a simple request, even after the organization’s repeated attempts to elicit compliance.

“We have worked with the legal counsel for every city in the state, and while we have encountered a handful of bad actors before, Parlier’s response is perhaps the most hostile to transparency we’ve ever come across,” Fellner said.

Fellner believes the Legislature needs to implement penalties for those government officials who violate California’s public records law.

“Allowing public officials to violate the law with complete impunity undermines the promise of a transparent and open government enshrined in both state law and the California Constitution,” Fellner said.

Parlier facing growing number of public records lawsuits

Parlier is currently facing at least two other public records lawsuits in addition to the just-filed action by Transparent California.

One of those lawsuits was filed by the Fresno County Fire Protection District, which alleges the city, through attorney Neal Costanzo, is unlawfully withholding records related to a recent eminent domain decision.

Mr. Costanzo responded to the Fire District’s request, court records show, by asserting that “there simply are no documents required to be disclosed in response to your very impertinent request for records.”

The Fire District, however, argues that the wholesale denial of their request was an unlawful violation of the California Public Records Act, and further alleges that “Parlier failed to perform a reasonable and diligent search for public records that were responsive to the District’s CPRA request,” court records show.

The complaint filed today by Transparent California in Fresno County Superior Court similarly alleges that Parlier violated state law because of its refusal to query and search electronic databases for records responsive to the purpose of the request.

Transparent California is asking the court to enter a Declaratory Judgment holding that Parlier “violated the California Public Records Act by (a) failing to promptly disclose records responsive to Petitioner’s request, (b) failing to assist Petitioner in locating records responsive to the purpose of its request, and (c) failing to provide a timely response to Petitioner’s public records request.”

The lawsuit also asks the court to compel Parlier to comply with the CPRA and provide a copy of records documenting city employees’ name and salary information so that it may be published online at TransparentCalifornia.com.

TransparentCalifornia.com is used by millions of Californians each year and has received praise for its ability to successfully improve transparency in government by elected officials, government employees and their unions, the media, and concerned citizens alike.

For more information, please contact Robert Fellner at 559-462-0122 or Robert@TransparentCalifornia.com.

Transparent California is California’s largest and most comprehensive database of public sector compensation and is a project of the Nevada Policy Research Institute, a nonpartisan, free-market think tank. Learn more at TransparentCalifornia.com.

Categories: 2021, Press Releases

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