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Striking a Blow for a Free Press – Supreme Court Rejects Public Records Policy

California-Supreme-CourtIn a blow for freedom, the California Supreme Court ruled that Orange County’s exemption from public records law is illegal.

The case stems from a request to Orange County by the Sierra Club for access to their computerized satellite mapping system. The system, which cost millions of dollars in taxpayer funds, was originally offered to the Sierra Club for a third of a million dollars. The Club refused, saying that the database is a public record and, therefore the county should follow the California Public Records law in making it available at cost.

Lower courts aligned with the county and ruled against the Sierra Club who then took the issue to the California Supreme Court. In ruling for the Sierra Club, the court said Orange County must provide access to the system at the actual cost of duplication.

We hold that although GIS mapping software falls within the ambit of this statutory exclusion, a GIS-formatted database likethe OC Landbase does not. Accordingly, such databases are public records that, unless otherwise exempt, must be produced upon request at the actual cost of duplication.

While this ruling specifically addresses a single public record it should, by inference, affect access to all public records in the state. That is good news for the media in general.

In a public records case last year, the city of Anaheim resisted a request for archived emails from city records. When pressed by the Voice of OC, the city then attempted to extract a $19,000 fee for reconstructing the records which had been deleted. Voice of OC and Californians Aware threatened a lawsuit in that case. The emails were allegedly destroyed in response to the Voice of OC’s request.

The City of Tustin has been particularly generous in granting access to public records. In one case where the number of records requested by Our Town Tustin resulted in several binders of information, we were given access in the City Clerk’s foyer rather than insist on charging for duplication. So, while this ruling may not do much for us directly, it will certainly insure the doors remain open for future access.

The Grass is Greenah in…uh, Pasadena

Work with me here…

You probably know that I make a lot of requests for information from the city. And, under the California Public Records Act, they are obliged to give it to me whether they want to or not (mostly not). A lot of stuff I ask for, admittedly, is a fishing expedition that will hopefully turn up the dirt I am looking for. Sometimes you just have to connect enough dots to make sense of what our “transparent” city is trying to hide.

A reader of mine (and apparent staffer at City Hall) alerted me to the impending departure of Tustin Human Resources Director, Krisine Recchia. I smelled a story of pain, deceit and freedom but I don’t publish unverified information. So, I was looking for something that would indicate some truth to the story. While making another PRA request I decided to slip in a second request to “provide me with the resignation letter or other documentation on the resignation of HR Director Kristine Recchia. A half hour later, I was pleasantly surprised to receive a phone call from the lady herself.

Kristine said she saw my PRA request for her letter of resignation and knew the city probably would decline to provide it to me due to personnel matters. So, she wanted to make sure I had the correct story about why she was leaving the city. Indeed, she had accepted a position with the city of Pasadena as Director of Human Resources. Kristine, who came to the city of Tustin from a Santa Fe Springs mid-level management position, has been with us for about six and a half years. Of her move to Pasadena, she said, “This is a fantastic opportunity for me. I will be moving into an expanded position with much more responsibility. The city of Pasadena is a full service city with over 800 employees. I am looking forward to the new challenges of a new job.”

When asked, Kristine was adamant that she loved Tustin. In fact, she lives here with her family and intends to remain here. She said the only motivation for her move was the new opportunities that would come with the position. I imagine the new salary will not hurt either. In comparing overall compensation between the two cities, Her base compensation could rise more than $30 thousand dollars a year.  There are other perks that go with a job that size as well. And, she won’t have to change retirement systems as both Tustin and Pasadena are in PERS.

In speaking with Dan Chmielewski of The Liberal OC, Dan said that Kristine is one of the few staff members whom he felt always tried to be as transparent as possible with him. “It’s unusual to find an HR director who will be as frank and professional as Kristine is”. The fact that Kristine wanted to get in front of her departure and make sure I had all the information I needed says volumes for her reputation.

Kristine officially leaves city employment for greener pastures on September 30th. Please join me in bidding her a fond farewell and good luck in her new position. One thing is for sure: Pasadena may be a much bigger city but they still have the hometown feel and lots of trees (and the world class Norton-Simon Museum of Art). So, Kristine should feel right at home. And, as we said before, she intends to continue to live here with her family so we will not lose her completely. Hmm. Perhaps we’ll see a new side of Kristine.