Edited to add: The list that Miranda Paster sent me isn’t even the list I asked for, as discussed in the story below. It’s an edited version of the publicly available ballot tabulation sheet. It is unbelievable that these people are so unwilling to release what are obviously public records and that their unwillingness is so clearly in the service of their political agenda. On the other hand, the fact that they so vigorously defend their secrecy makes it seem even more likely that they’re concealing serious and exploitable weaknesses.
Three weeks ago I wrote about how neither the City Clerk nor CD11 was willing to hand over a list of the property owners in the proposed Venice Beach BID with contract information. CD11 told me to ask the Clerk and the Clerk told me to ask Tara Devine and Tara Devine ignored me (and continues to ignore me). The Clerk’s rationale was that they didn’t have anything to do with mailing out the petitions, so that the Public Records Act didn’t apply to the mailing list.
Now, if you’re not familiar with the act, you may not be aware that (at section 6252(e)) public records are defined fairly expansively to be any “writing containing information relating to the conduct of the public’s business prepared, owned, used, or retained by any state or local agency.” So I made the argument to the Clerk’s office that since they were orchestrating the process, the mailing list was being used by them even if they didn’t own it or retain it themselves. No dice on that, though.
So imagine my pleasure and surprise to discover on August 14 that, upon perusing Government Code section 53753 for the zillionth time (this is the same law used to such marvelous effect ten days later by the incomparable Shayla Myers of LAFLA to derail the whole BID process) that the freaking City Clerk’s office is required to notice the property owners by mail:
Prior to levying a new or increased assessment, or an existing assessment that is subject to the procedures and approval process set forth in Section 4 of Article XIII D of the California Constitution, an agency shall give notice by mail to the record owner of each identified parcel.
Not the BID Consultant, but the agency (which in this context means the City Clerk). So when they told me that they didn’t have anything to do with sending out the initial petitions so they didn’t have a mailing list, this may have been true, in the strict sense that the consultant mails out the petitions, but it was false in the larger sense that they knew I wanted a mailing list and pretended that they didn’t have one. It’s an interesting facet of CPRA, by the way, that it explicitly forbids being disingenuous in precisely this manner, probably because it’s a natural refuge for duplicitous agencies with something to hide. In particular, at section 6253.1 it says:
“the public agency, in order to assist the member of the public make a focused and effective request that reasonably describes an identifiable record or records, shall … Assist the member of the public to identify records and information that are responsive to the request or to the purpose of the request…”
This would seem to rule out the ploy of saying they don’t have the mailing list for the petitions because Tara Devine while neglecting to mention that they do have, they are required to have, the mailing list for the notices to the property owners.
So anyway, I promptly submitted a CPRA request based on this theory. Clerk employee Rita Moreno told me they’d take their full 10 days to respond.1 Anyway, instead of taking 10 days to respond, they took 17. Miranda Paster, just this morning, sent me this list of Venice Beach property owners. This is certainly better than nothing, but notice that it does not have mailing addresses. Also, check the metadata and you will see that this PDF was created on August 18, 2016. That’s four days after I made my request, and five days before the hearing before the Council about the BID.
Furthermore, the metadata indicates that the PDF was produced in Excel. Thus the Clerk’s office has a spreadsheet in which this data is properly contained, which almost certainly has the addresses in it otherwise why make a spreadsheet? So they not only didn’t send me the material I asked for, they edited it down, altered its original format2 sat on the material they did send for almost two weeks, and didn’t send it until its political utility for organizing purposes was moot. This obstructionism is yet another violation of CPRA, which, at section 6253(d), states:
Nothing in this chapter shall be construed to permit an agency to delay or obstruct the inspection or copying of public records.
It’s also sneaky in a really low-rent Nixonian kind of way, not what I would have expected from public officials in one of the most important cities in history.3 They ought to behave with more dignity than this.
Finally, let me just note that the Clerk’s office has not claimed that the mailing addresses are exempt, just that they don’t have them. If they ever do claim that they’re exempt, they’ll likely claim to be protecting some kind of privacy interest on the part of the property owners. This, e.g., is the argument used by the Hollywood Property Owners Alliance to justify their not turning over a mailing list of their property owners. But this argument won’t stand up to any kind of stress.
Just think of all that campaign advertising that shows up in your mailbox before elections. Those people get your addresses from the County of Los Angeles from your voter registration form. The County won’t hand them over in response to a standard CPRA request, but they will give them to anyone who can swear that they need them for political purposes. The public interest in a robust pre-election discussion outweighs the public interest in keeping voters’ mailing addresses secret. Obviously the same principle applies here. And obviously the Clerk’s Office knew I wanted them for political purposes, otherwise why did they withhold even the partial list until after the hearing? Shameful.
Anyway, the City of Los Angeles is famous for ignoring both the spirit and the letter of the California Public Records Act, so in some sense none of this surprising. It’s usually not worth taking them to court, because they’re usually just compliant enough. However here they’re edging toward un-minimal non-compliance at this point. That’s the story to date, anyway. More news when I have it.
- Don’t get me started on the weird technical details of why they don’t actually have 10 days to respond in many cases, like this one. It’s not worth litigating, so agencies will continue to assert that they have 10 days to respond even though they often do not.
- Also a no-no under CPRA, which requires electronic documents to be supplied in their original formats.
- Call me grandiose. I believe it is true.