This isn’t an easy story to write for a number of reasons. I’ll start in 2002, long before this blog was a glimmer in Mike Lawson’s eye. I was a cub scout cubmaster and the den leader for my son’s group — bears I think. We had invited then Irvine councilwoman Beth Krom to answer questions about the Great Park at a meeting and she accepted (it was the first time I met her). At the end of the night, Krom took a photo with all the kids in the den — 10 in total.
When she ran for re-election in 2004, I wanted to give her the photo for use in campaign literature — unaware of Boy Scout policy of using photos of kids in uniform for political mailers. First, I emailed parents for permission because the kids were not of age. Three parents said no and another informed me on Scout’s policy. I had a friend running for school board who then offered chapter and verse about how Irvine and IUSD regarded using school kids as props for any political event — a policy more or less followed closely in Irvine to this day — and it’s a big no-no. So I never sent her the photo, but it was a memorable meeting for the kids as well as the parents.
So let’s move back to Anaheim and the last city council election, now that you have the setup.
OC Weekly’s Gabriel San Roman ran a terrific recap of a candidate’s forum at the Arab American Community Center on October 24. After election day, while votes were still being counted and the race was undecided, sources from both parties complained to me about that forum and how Anaheim students were used as political props for the event with one source suggesting the kids got word to cheer wildly for two candidates in particular — Dr. Jose Moreno, a Democrat in Ward 3, who won his race, and “Republican” Mark Lopez in District 5. It’s hearsay, but digital video of the event posted on social media showed San Roman’s reporting to be accurate. And this post isn’t about either of these men.
From San Roman’s story: “The final Anaheim city council candidate forum before Election Day quickly turned into a high school prep rally last night, with District 3 hopeful Jose F. Moreno as its main mascot. School buses brought a batch of kids from Anaheim High School to watch democracy in action at the newly opened Arab-American Community Center on Beach Boulevard. With Anaheim High School teacher and city school board member Ryan Ruelas seated at the front, his students, wearing Anaheim Bros and CROWN (Civically Raising Opportunities for Women) shirts, cheered wildly whenever Moreno made an emphatic point.”
(And for those interested in how the candidates stood on Sanctuary City status for Anaheim, San Roman reported this: “All candidates save for Angel and Faessel agreed that Anaheim should become a sanctuary city for undocumented immigrants.”)
So in mid-December, after being sent a video of 48 high school kids getting off a school bus, I decided to see what was up. I sent email to the district’s PIO seeking an interview with district superintendent Mike Matsuda, while I dug through my files for a 2014 memo from him about political activity members of the AUHSD board could undertake during local elections.
The call back wasn’t so hot.
PIO Patricia Karlak called back and I tried to describe why I wanted to speak with Matsuda and referenced the memo and she demanded I produce it for her. I finally found it and emailed it to her and I got one email response back to my questions about “who paid for the bus?” and “why were kids attending the event?”
Her response on 12/15/2016: “The buses that took students to the candidate forum were paid for by a CTA grant for civic engagement activities. The district did not pay for any costs related to the students attending the forum. Many of the kids who attended the forum were taking AP government.
However, at the end of the day, we are an educational institution, and if an event provides students with an opportunity for civic learning, the district can fund that. If, for example, there were a presidential debate at CSUF, we could bus kids over there at district expense.
Meanwhile, an example of prohibited political activity would be if a board member uses district devices or assets to advance his candidacy. Or, if a proposition were pending and district assets were used to advance or reject the measure.”
So I asked about the CTA grant. How much was it for? Who applied for it? Can I get a copy of the application? Why didn’t the district send kids to the US Senate debate at CSU-LA with Anaheim-native Loretta Sanchez debating Kamala Harris? Those questions went unanswered so I filed a PRA request with the district.
On December 23, I got an email from the Law office of ArtianoShinoff of San Diego and attorney Amir Azimzadeh, copying Karlak and two other lawyers from the law firm saying the AUHSD office would be closed for the holidays through January 9 and asking my cooperation in the records request after the break. I replied OK and gave them January 14 as the date the 10 business day clock started ticking. I inquired again on January 17 (Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday weekend) and wound up getting a response from a fourth lawyer — Michelle Pacis, who replied:
I am assisting Mr. Azimzadeh and AUHSD with your CPRA requests. I understand you recently asked Mr. Azimzadeh for an update regarding your requests.
I have spoken with AUHSD and it is currently working to gather the disclosable records that respond to your requests. Please allow the District some time to gather these documents as it requires participation from several departments.
Please do not hesitate to contact me if you have questions.
I thank you for your patience in this matter.
When I asked what was taking so long, I got this response:
Pursuant to Government Code section 6253(b), AUHSD responds to all CPRA requests promptly.
AUHSD will produce documents you requested that “reasonably describe an identifiable record” (Gov. Code, § 6253(b)) such that the record or records “can be located with reasonable efforts” (State Board of Equalization v. Superior Court (1992) 10 Cal.App.4th 1177, 1186), and which are sufficiently “focused and specific.” (Rogers v. Superior Court (1993) 19 Cal.App.4th 469, 481.)
Pursuant to Government Code section 6254(k) and the Evidence Code, AUHSD will not produce records protected by the attorney-client privilege or attorney-client work-product doctrine as these records are exempt from disclosure.
On February 3, I got this response from attorney Daniel Shinoff (we’re up to communicating with our third different lawyer now):
Enclosed with this correspondence are the documents responsive to your California
Public Records Act request to the Anaheim Union High School District (“AUHSD”), requesting two categories of documents:
1. Any records relating to the CTA grant.
2. Any records relating to permission slips, fliers, or literature used by AUHSD that students shared with parents.
There are no documents responsive to your first request. The documents that respond to your second request are included with this correspondence. The documents include four permission slips. We have redacted personal identifying student and parent information from the documents pursuant to the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (20 U.S.C. § 1232(g); 34 CFR Part 99) and Government Code section 6255.
The documents described above include all of the documents within AUHSD’s possession responsive to your requests.
I re-read the sentence, “There are no documents responsive to your first request” (on the CTA grant). That just doesn’t make sense. I made a more detailed PRA request on February 7 and got a promise I’d hear from the law firm when Ms. Pacis returned from vacation on 2/21/17. I also sent a Facebook note to Mike Matsuda in late January and another to Ryan Ruelas on 2/23 asking for an interview to have them answer questions.
I gave Ms. Pacis two days to go through email and get caught up and sent this note on 2/23/17 just before noon:
AUSHD has redacted permission slips for only 4 of the 48 students transported to the event with a district bus which I believe is a violation of district rules. There is a video, posted on social media, of kids getting off the bus. I have counted them.
I don’t have the cost of the business transportation paid for by a CTA grant, who filed for the grant, nor details of how it was awarded but indications are Anaheim elementary school teacher Ryan Ruelas arranged for it and he was involved in several city council campaigns as a volunteer and also sits on the CTA state council.
Sources tell me students were encouraged to cheer for certain candidates, in effect making kids props for a political event.
I’ll also note the general uncooperativeness of AUHSD in answering my questions; I requested an interview with the Superintendent in mid-December and it’s almost March. No interview has been arranged.
Now if I have something wrong in any of the framing of this story, please elaborate.
Thirty three minutes later, I received a letter from the lawfirm with redacted copies of 57 permission slips, a copy of district policy on allowing students to attend offsite extra-curricular activities, and further proof that there were no records pertaining to the CTA grant. No bill for the bus. No application. No emails. No correspondence. Nothing.
Now a number of the kids who attended the forum are taking AP Government classes. My daughter takes this class at Northwood High School. Her class is very focused on the branches of government, their responsibilities, how they function and interact. There is discussion about political campaigns and political parties, but the class she takes is very focused on how law and policy are made, how courts work and the responsibilities of elected and appointed officials. The candidate forum in Anaheim was none of this — it was political theater with a cheering section.
Sources calling to say “kids were told to cheer” is hearsay. There’s no proof of this. But when you watch the video, it’s clear the kids had favorite candidates. And the foot dragging from the district lends some credibility the notion the kids were there to turn the forum into a student body election assembly or pep rally, not a city council campaign.
And this wasn’t an official school function but a club activity from the Anaheim Bros and CROWNS, so there’s more leeway per se.
I spoke with a friend affiliated with Irvine Unified High School District and this source is shocked there’s no paperwork associated with the bus payment. Is it a day rate? An hourly rate? Fuel reimbursement? Driver tip? The source said no paperwork is “sloppy at best or incompetent at worst.” Why only four permission slips initially, then all 57, within 33 minutes of framing a story? I honestly think they were hoping I’d forget about the whole thing.
For me, I still struggle to understand how a PRA request on December 15 has taken nearly 10 weeks to resolve — and four lawyers later. And the simplest of questions remain unanswered along with a request for an interview with the superintendent remains unscheduled.