In January 2016 the Los Feliz Ledger broke the story that termed-out CD4 Councilmember Tom LaBonge had ordered the destruction of public records prior to his leaving office on June 30, 2015. Emily Alpert Reyes, writing in the Los Angeles Times reported on Thursday that the First Amendment Coalition had filed suit against the City of Los Angeles, claiming, among other things, that the destruction of this material either violated the California Public Records Act or else the fairly draconian Government Code section 6200. Thanks to FAC director Peter Scheer I have a copy of the petition to share with you, and you can read some further commentary after the break.
According to the Times, when they heard about LaBonge’s destruction of records, the First Amendment Coalition made a CPRA request of Council President Herb Wesson for some material that would necessarily have been present in the destroyed stuff:
1) copies of records, including emails, memos, letters and notes, written by or sent to then-Council member Tom LaBonge in 2014, and concerning any of the following:
a) The LA Department of Water & Power
b) The California Film Commission
c) The proposed Villaggio Toscano housing development on Sepulveda Boulevard in Sherman Oaks
It’s not possible to tell from the documentation, but I’m guessing that this request was tailored to touch as many areas as possible among the records thought to have been destroyed. Wesson responded via his Assistant Chief Deputy, Edward Johnson, who stated:
This email responds to your recent request for public records pursuant to the California Public Records Act (CPRA) for documents written to be or sent to then Councilmember Tom LaBonge in 2014 concerning the DWP, the California Film Commission, and the proposed Villaggio Toscano housing development on Sepulveda Blvd in Sherman Oaks.
Our office conducted a search and have concluded that our office has no documents consistent with your request.
So now the question is whether or not the City did a diligent search. If not they violated CPRA. If they did but the records are destroyed,1 they have violated the much, much scarier Government Code section 6200, which states:
Every officer having the custody of any record, map, or book, or of any paper or proceeding of any court, filed or deposited in any public office, or placed in his or her hands for any purpose, is punishable by imprisonment pursuant to subdivision (h) of Section 1170 of the Penal Code for two, three, or four years if, as to the whole or any part of the record, map, book, paper, or proceeding, the officer willfully does or permits any other person to do any of the following:
(a) Steal, remove, or secrete.
(b) Destroy, mutilate, or deface.
(c) Alter or falsify.
And with respect to this issue, the FAC’s third cause of action states in part that:
Therefore, this Court should find that the records created by the CITY should be retained in accordance with Government Code Section 6200, and that the CITY has violated Government Code Section 6200, by destroying public records. This Court should order the CITY to comply with Government Code Section 6200, and enjoin any and all practices causing destruction of records that are less than two years old.
A court order to this effect would be an excellent thing for the City of Los Angeles, which is well-known to be incredibly cavalier about the preservation of its records. It’s amazing to see our Councilmembers and the rest of the City government seem so oblivious to the fact that Los Angeles is not just a major city in the present context, but is a major city in the context of all of world history. Our City records and access to them are not only necessary for the citizens of Los Angeles to monitor and participate in our present politics, but are and will always be of interest to historians.
So it’s shameful that our politicians are so ready to neglect their moral and legal duties towards the raw material of our history in favor of their idiotic short-term goals. We see this at all levels, from the lowliest business improvement districts all the way up to the third floor of 200 N. Spring Street. Just for instance, you may remember the difficulties I am having figuring out what happened at Selma Park.
If you thought I’d forgotten about it, I have not. I am waiting for the results of a year-old pending CPRA request to the City’s IT department for relevant emails to/from the staff of Eric Garcetti about the issue. This was necessary because then CD13 representative, now mayor, Garcetti claims through his spokesfolks not to have any records from his time as Councilman. Also, his successor, Mitch O’Farrell, claims through his staff not to have received anything from Garcetti when he assumed office in July 2013. I have written about this previously:
And LaBonge is just the one who got caught. Eric Garcetti is no better. During my research on the Selma Park situation I made a number of requests of Garcetti for records from 2007 and 2008. His lawyer, Richard Llewellyn, unfailingly told me that there were no responsive records, even as my requests got more and more general. Garcetti seems to have no explanation for what happened to his records either. Even bracketing the question of whether or not Garcetti’s destruction of these records is a crime, it’s incomprehensible to me that a City Council representative in Los Freaking Angeles thinks its OK to not deposit his records in the City Archives.
I even filed a complaint against Garcetti with the Public Integrity Unit of the LA County District Attorney in January of 2016 accusing him of violating Government Code 6200, although there has been, and probably will be, no response. So anyway, fingers crossed on this lawsuit, which has the potential to start fixing this serious flaw in our City’s governance.
And fingers crossed for CD4 representative David Ryu, who was in an immediate sense the victim of LaBonge’s shenanigans. Certainly the fact that Ryu, an outsider, beat LaBonge’s hand-picked successor candidate, Carolyn Ramsay, played a major role in LaBonge’s decision to destroy the materials. Perhaps if his former chief of staff had won he wouldn’t have sent his records out to be burned.2 And isn’t this just the kind of petty bullshit that the preservation of the history of Los Angeles ought to depend on?
Anyway, in December 2015 Ryu introduced a motion seeking to prevent this kind of nonsense from happening in the future. There’s not much there right now, just an instruction to the Chief Legislative Analyst and the City Attorney to study the issue, gather input, and make recommendations. But maybe there’s some potential there, although I tend to think that if there was a will to solve this problem it would already have been solved. I also wonder if, once Ryu has been on the council for a while, and this may already be happening, he’ll be influenced by whatever motives lead the longer-serving members to want to retain their right to destroy stuff, and this promising motion will end up dying in committee like so many other necessary reforms have done. We shall see, I suppose.
Image of David Ryu is a crop of a public record, which I obtained from here.