$19,000 Charge! Anaheim’s Brazen Attempt To Avoid Public Records Disclosure

We’ve known for a while now that Anaheim officials have been desperate to avoid disclosure of embarrassing and possibly incriminating public records. They have ordered staff to delete records, and denied the existence of records in order to hide what is going on at city hall. Yesterday, they brazenly jumped over the line and refused to comply with a request from Voice of OC for email records.

Adam Elmahrek reports:

The city of Anaheim is charging Voice of OC $19,000 for copies of public records that high-level officials have deleted from city computers.

The city’s charge is in response to a Jan. 25 request under the California Public Records Act for city emails sent and received by department heads that had been deleted from city servers and computers in the previous 60 days. The request followed revelations that Planning Department managers had ordered employees to purge public records.

In her response to the request, Anaheim City Attorney Cristina Talley cited a clause in the Public Records Act that allows governmental bodies to charge for “data compilation, extraction or programming, which in this case is estimated to be $19,000.”

This is simply outrageous, and screams for a lawsuit to settle once and for all what public agencies are required to do in maintaining and disclosing of electronic city records.

The California Public Records Act (Statutes of 1968, Chapter 1473; currently codified as California Government Code §§ 6250 through 6276.48) was a law passed by the California State Legislature and signed by the Governor in 1968 requiring inspection and/or disclosure of governmental records to the public upon request, unless exempted by law.

The law is similar to the Freedom of Information Act, except for the fact that “the people have the right of access to information concerning the conduct of the people’s business” is enshrined in Article 1 of the California Constitution due to California Proposition 59 (the Sunshine Amendment).

By deleting records from active files, then storing them in a way that makes disclosure prohibitively expensive for those requesting disclosure, Anaheim is deliberately circumventing their responsibility to disclose records.

When the legislature enacted CPRA, it expressly declared that “access to information concerning the conduct of the people’s business is a fundamental and necessary right of every person in this state.”[1] Indeed, in California “access to government records has been deemed a fundamental interest of citizenship”[2] and has emphasized that “maximum disclosure of the conduct of governmental operations [is] to be promoted by the act.”[3] By promoting prompt public access to government records, the CPRA is “intended to safeguard the accountability of government to the public.”[4] As the California Supreme Court recognized in CBS v. Block:

Implicit in a democratic process is the notion that government should be accountable for its actions. In order to verify accountability, individuals must have access to government files. Such access permits checks against the arbitrary exercise of official power and secrecy in the political process.[5]

According to Elmahrek’s report:

Terry Francke, general counsel for open-government advocacy group Californians Aware, said the city has no right to levy such a charge for records that were illegally deleted in the first place.

“The public, in asking for an email that is 38, 39, 40 or plus days old should not have to pay the cost of reconstructing that record simply because it’s been dissolved by a deliberate act of the city,” Francke said.

This is yet another sad example of a City Council and administration determined to maintain the status quo and the pay to play system the really controls what does, and does not, happen in the city.