Take a look at this CPRA petition against the Greater Leimert Park Village BID. It is the latest in a fairly long series of complaints I’ve been forced to file not because the BID is illegally withholding records, not because they’re putting me off and putting me off, not because they’re implementing a lot of chuckleheaded Humistonian delay tactics, but just because they simply do not respond at all. You can read a transcription of selections from the petition after the break.
In short, though, this BID is of interest for two overarching reasons.1 First, and least, because it’s in the process of renewing, a process which is both fascinating and important. BID renewal has interesting intersections with the Municipal Lobbying Ordinance and other core political issues. Everything about it is important. By ignoring my CPRA requests the Leimert Park Village BID is obstructing our increased understanding of this essential process in the lives of our BIDs.
Second, and more importantly, as everyone knows, Leimert Park is presently undergoing lightspeed and brutal gentrification. This, in turn, is related to City Attorney Mike Feuer’s putative gang crackdown at Baldwin Village Apartments. It’s well known that the City uses these actions as a way to make neighborhoods feel safer for white residents and thereby encourages and supports gentrification.
Business improvement districts have been active agents for gentrification in Hollywood, Downtown, in Venice, and probably elsewhere. Thus the question of whether the Leimert Park Village BID is involved at all in this process is inherently interesting. Even the fact that they’re not involved, if true, would be of great public interest.
And yet, by refusing to respond at all to my queries, the BID is thwarting the public’s ability to understand these weighty matters. But of course, there’s nothing surprising here. This, it seems, is just one of the things that BIDdies in LA do. Stay tuned for further info and turn the page for transcribed selections from the petition.
1. This is a petition to enforce the California Public Records Act (“CPRA”) against Respondent and Defendant (“Respondent”) Community Build, Inc., AKA the Greater Leimert Park Village/Crenshaw Corridor Business Improvement District (“the BID”). Petitioner and Plaintiff (“Petitioner”) Mike submitted a request for public records to the BID asking for access to clearly-identifiable records subject to mandatory disclosure under the CPRA. Despite Petitioner’s repeated attempts over many months to request records by email, telephone, and certified mail, Respondent has failed to respond at all to Petitioner’s request. Respondent has thereby violated the CPRA.
2. The public’s access to information is obstructed by Respondent’s flagrant and repeated and violations of the CPRA. By this Petition and Complaint (“Petition”) and pursuant to the Code of Civil Procedure §§ 1085, et seq. and Government Code §§ 6250, et seq., Petitioner respectfully requests from this Court (1) a writ of mandate to command Respondent to disclose all non-exempt information Petitioner requested and thereby comply with the CPRA, and (2) a declaration that Respondent’s conduct, policies, and pattern and practice of denying access to public records violates the CPRA.
JURISDICTION AND VENUE
5. Petitioner Mike is a resident of Los Angeles, holds a PhD in mathematics, is a mathematics professor at a local college, and is an open records activist. Mike utilizes public records requests to investigate and understand the activities of BIDs, the Los Angeles City government, and the relationship between the two. He publicizes his findings to the public through blogging and community events. Information Mike has uncovered via CPRA requests has assisted academic researchers and the public at large in understanding BIDs and their power in the community. For example, Mike’s research regarding BIDs’ involvement in the thwarted formulation of a Skid Row Neighborhood Council, uncovered largely through public records requests, was recently featured as part of an exhibit at the Los Angeles Poverty Department Museum. Documentary filmmakers have used records Mike uncovered to inform their ongoing production of a film on the Greater West Hollywood Food Coalition and the Hollywood Media District BID. Additionally, Mike has empowered the public to use the CPRA effectively for both research and civic activism by publishing a guide to the practical use of the CPRA in the City of Los Angeles. Mike is a member of the public within the meaning of §§ 6252(b)-(c).
6. Respondent Community Build, Inc. is a property owners’ association pursuant to the Property and Business Improvement District Law of 1994, California Streets & Highways Code § 36600, et seq. Respondent contracts with the City of Los Angeles to administer the Greater Leimert Park Village/Crenshaw Corridor BID. Respondent is subject to the CPRA as a matter of state law. California Streets & Highways Code § 36612. Respondent’s contract with the City of Los Angeles also explicitly states that Respondent is “subject to and must comply with” the CPRA.
Background on the gentrification and Chesapeake Apartments controversy at issue in Petitioner’s unanswered CPRA request
7. The city of Los Angeles is home to approximately 40 BIDs, including the Greater Leimert Park Village/Crenshaw Corridor BID. Although BIDs are private entities governed by unelected, private officials, they collect monetary assessments from local property owners and can have substantial impact on the manner in which neighborhoods operate—from influencing which businesses operate in an area, to instituting private security forces and expelling homeless individuals from public spaces. Given their level of public power, BIDs are subject to relatively little public oversight, making the CPRA an important tool to unveil and understand their activities.
8. The geographic boundaries of Respondent’s BID encompass Leimert Park, a predominantly African American neighborhood in South Los Angeles. With the onset of a new subway line running through the center of the BID, the area is beginning to undergo rapid redevelopment, changing demographics, and gentrification which have been sources of concern for some of the neighborhood’s long-time residents. The Los Angeles Times reports that while “Leimert Park has long been an entry point to homeownership and a comfortable living for the black middle and working class,” recent gentrification in the area has left many residents “unable to afford the rising rents and higher home prices.” As such, in late 2017, nearly 50 organizations rallied in Leimert Park at a Resist Gentrification Action Summit in response to what many perceive as an urgent crisis in the neighborhood.
9. Reflective of the changing landscape of the area under the BID’s purview, a controversy has arisen in the community regarding the Chesapeake Apartments, a 425-unit apartment complex that lies just outside the BID’s boundaries. In 2017, Los Angeles City Attorney Mike Feuer filed a lawsuit against the owner of Chesapeake Apartments, Swaranjit Nijjar, alleging that he had negligently allowed gang activity to take place on the property and thereby endangered public safety. The suit seeks, in part, an injunction against gang activity in the complex, an obligatory video-monitoring system, increased tenant screening processes, and the presence of armed security guards on site. Some activists have spoken out against the lawsuit, arguing that the City Attorney has only become concerned about violence in the neighborhood since it recently began to gentrify. Moreover, they argue that the suit may be used as pretense for racial profiling and harassment of African American residents in the area.
10. During this time of upheaval in the BID’s neighborhoods, the BID will reach the end of its contractual operating period at the close of 2018. It is currently in the process of seeking not only contractual renewal, but also an expansion of its geographic scope. The BID appears to have retained the services of the consulting firm Urban Design Center to assist in its renewal and expansion process.
11. Through his request for public records, Petitioner seeks to understand whether the BID played any role in the genesis of the suit against Chesapeake Apartments and in the area’s rapid gentrification generally. Particularly given the significant changes taking place within the BID’s boundaries and the BID’s efforts to expand its scope in 2019, the public’s understanding of the BID’s role in the gentrification of the Leimert Park area is vital. By refusing to respond even nominally to Mike’s repeated requests for clearly-identifiable public records subject to disclosure, the BID has completely disregarded the need for transparency and continues to prevent the public from understanding its most basic functions during a critical time for the neighborhood.
Respondent violated the CPRA by failing to provide any public records in response to Mike’s public records request
12. On June 5, 2018, Mike submitted a CPRA request to Respondent via email. He sent the email to the BID’s public-facing email address, firstname.lastname@example.org, and to Respondent’s Chief Executive Officer and Interim President, Kimberly Ramsey (“Ramsey”), at email@example.com. The request sought three categories of records: (1) all emails between anyone on the BID Board or staff and anyone at a list of enumerated domains (such as lapd.online, lacity.org, lasd.org, and others) from January 1, 2017 through the date of compliance with the request; (2) all emails in the possession of anyone on the BID Board or staff which contained an enumerated list of keywords related to the Chesapeake Apartment controversy from January 1, 2017 through the date of compliance with the request; and (3) certain records related to the BID’s retention of a consultant regarding its contractual renewal process. Respondent provided no response to Mike’s CPRA request. A true and correct copy of Mike’s June 5, 2018 email to Respondent is attached as Exhibit A.
13. On June 20, 2018, Mike sent another email to Respondent at the same two email addresses inquiring as to the status of his request. He notified Respondent that it had not complied with its legal duty to respond to his request within 10 days of receipt. See § 6253(c). Again, Respondent provided no response to Mike’s request. A true and correct copy of Mike’s June 20, 2018 email to Respondent is attached as Exhibit B.
14. On June 24, 2018, Mike forwarded his request to a number of other individuals affiliated with the BID asking for their assistance in accessing the requested documents. Mike sent his request to: Respondent’s public-facing email address, firstname.lastname@example.org; Brenda Shockley, Respondent’s agent for service of process as then registered with the Secretary of State, at email@example.com,3 firstname.lastname@example.org, and email@example.com; and Phyllis Parker, Respondent’s Senior Administrative Assistant, at firstname.lastname@example.org. Mike also again sent the request to the BID’s public-facing email address and to Ramsey. Again, Respondent provided no response to Mike’s request. A true and correct copy of Mike’s two June 24, 2018 emails to Respondent are attached as Exhibit C.
15. On July 24, 2018, Mike forwarded his request to Dr. Clyde Oden, Respondent’s Chief Financial Officer as registered with the Secretary of State, at email@example.com. Mike noted in his email that Respondent had not provided any response to his request for public records and had failed to respond to his request within 10 days of receipt as required by law. See § 6253(c). Again, Respondent provided no response to Mike’s request. A true and correct copy of Mike’s July 24, 2018 email to Respondent is attached as Exhibit D.
16. Rather than proceeding directly to litigation, on August 22, 2018, Mike contacted Respondent by telephone at its public-facing telephone number to inquire about the status of his unanswered request. He spoke with Phyllis Parker, who told him that Ramsey handled all public records requests and advised that he call Ramsey directly. Mike called Ramsey’s extension, and the call was routed to her voicemail. Mike left a voicemail message in which he identified himself and inquired about the status of his unanswered request. Yet again, Respondent provided no response to Mike’s request.
17. Rather than proceeding directly to litigation, on September 4, 2018, Mike sent a copy of his public records request to Ramsey via certified mail. By then, Ramsey had replaced Shockley as Respondent’s agent for service of process, and Mike mailed the request to the service address listed with the Secretary of State. Ramsey personally signed for the letter upon its delivery. Nevertheless, Respondent again provided no response to Mike’s request. A true and correct copy of the certified return receipt for Mike’s request signed by Ramsey is attached as Exhibit E.
18. In sum, Mike contacted Respondent via email, telephone, and certified mail, pursuing every point of contact he could locate over the course of many months to attempt to induce Respondent to comply with California law and respond to his request for public records. Despite Mike’s repeated communications through multiple points of contact and various attempts to avoid litigation, Respondent has failed to respond in any way whatsoever to Mike’s CPRA request—let alone within 10 days as required by statute. See § 6253(c). In the nearly six months since Mike first submitted his request, Respondent has ignored Mike entirely and failed to provide even one responsive record. Respondent has thereby violated the CPRA.
Records responsive to Mike’s requests exist, demonstrating that Respondent is unlawfully withholding public records
19. Information obtained through other CPRA requests demonstrates that records responsive to Mike’s request exist and are therefore clearly being withheld by Respondent.
20. As one example, Mike’s request asked in part for all emails between (defined as “to/from/cc/bcc”) anyone on the BID Board or staff and anyone at the domain lacity.org from January 1, 2017 to the date of Respondent’s compliance with the request. Mike is in possession of an email from Respondent’s Senior Administrative Assistant, Phyllis Parker, to a group of recipients including Ramsey, BID Board Members (including Ben Caldwell, Fred Calloway, Alan DiCastro, Curtis Franlin, and Jamila Veasley), and Rita Moreno at an lacity.org email domain. The email invites recipients to attend a committee meeting for the proposed renewal and expansion of the BID. The email was sent on October 16, 2017—within the timeframe of the request. This record is clearly responsive to Mike’s request. A true and accurate copy of this email is attached as Exhibit F.
21. As another example, Mike is in possession of an email exchange between Ramsey and Rita Moreno at an lacity.org email domain. In the exchange, Ramsey requests a disbursement availability notice to the BID for payments from government and public agencies; she notes that “city payments have been made but not reflected on the most recent report.” The exchange was sent on May 1, 2017 and May 2, 2017, within the timeframe of Mike’s request. These records are clearly responsive to Mike’s request. A true and accurate copy of this email exchange is attached as Exhibit G.
22. Although records responsive to Mike’s request clearly exist, Respondent withheld all such records. Respondent thereby maintains these records in complete secrecy, thereby frustrating the democratic process and violating the CPRA.
23. Respondent has repeatedly and as a matter of course violated the CPRA. Respondent has failed to make any determination as to whether Mike’s requests were for disclosable records in the BID’s possession, let alone to do so within the 10-day statutory deadline. See § 6253(c). Respondent has failed to provide an estimated date by which the requested records would be made available, let alone to do so within the 10-day statutory deadline. Id. Most notably, Respondent has failed to provide even a single requested record to Mike, let alone to do so “promptly” as required by law. See § 6253(b).
24. Respondent’s pattern and practice of failing to produce public records in response to requests—and, in fact, ignoring requests entirely—effectively makes secret the operations of the BID and shields Respondent from public accountability. Particularly given the BID’s attempts to expand its geographic scope in 2019 and the rapid gentrification in the area, the public interest in the requested public records is great. Judicial action is therefore necessary to enforce the requirements of the CPRA against Respondent.
Respondent unlawfully denied access to Petitioner’s requested public records
37. Petitioner submitted a request for straightforward, easy-to-produce records that would shed light on the BID’s operations in the rapidly-gentrifying Leimert Park area. Respondent denied all access to these public records through its pattern and practice of non-response. Respondent failed to indicate whether it conducted a search for those requested records. Respondent failed to make a determination as to whether those requested records were disclosable. Respondent failed to provide an estimate as to when those requested records would be produced. Respondent failed to state under which exemptions, if any, it was withholding records. And most notably, Respondent failed to provide any public records in response to Petitioner’s request, despite Petitioner’s repeated follow-up communications through various points of contact regarding the request. To date, it has been nearly six months since Mike first submitted his request. By failing to produce even one of the requested public records, Respondent is maintaining in a shroud of secrecy records related to the BID’s political activity and communications.
38. Respondent’s denial of access and its failure to even communicate with Petitioner regarding his request not only violates the letter of the CPRA, but also its spirit. The CPRA is predicated on the principle that:
Openness in government is essential to the functioning of democracy. Implicit in the 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. Int’l Fed. Of Professional and Technical Engineers, Local 21, AFL-CIO v. Super. Ct., 42 Cal.4th 319, 328-39 (2007) (internal quotations omitted). By repeatedly failing to respond to requests for such long periods of time, Respondent denies the public access to vital public information, and it withholds access to records while they are current and most relevant to the public interest. In so doing, Respondent shields itself from public scrutiny and disrupts the democratic process.
39. The CPRA is one of the only tools the public possesses for transparency and accountability over BIDs. Public access to records through the CPRA sheds light on the BID’s political activity and its operation outside the public eye. By withholding all requested information, Respondent is shielding from disclosure information that could reveal BID actions of significant public concern. As such, Respondent’s clear violations of the CPRA require judicial intervention.
Image of Kimberly Ramsey is ©2018 MichaelKohlhaas.org and is tangentially related to a screenshot from this lil video over here.
- That is, two reasons beyond the main reason, which is that all Los Angeles BIDs are interesting. It’s like a watcher of the skies when some new planet swims into his ken, and that planet is a zillionaire-infested hellscape or like stout Cortez with eagle eyes staring at the Pacific but all he can see is already deteriorating 60 story glass condo warrens with 40% occupancy rates built with corruptly obtained public subsidies. Keats didn’t cover those possibilities, of course, which is why this City so desperately needs MK.Org!