Ask the LA City Bureau of Sanitation, popularly known as “LA San,” for public records and you’ll almost certainly be subjected to obstructions, delays, lies, and so on. And since LA San signed up for NextRequest, a despicable and useless public records platform, you’ll be forced to communicate with anonymous City staffers through a clunky script-heavy website that barely works on a computer and just forget about your phone all together.
Unless, of course, you happen to work for NBC Universal or the LA Times. Elena Stern, Senior Public Information Director with the Department of Public Works, which includes LA San, is happy to handle your CPRA requests informally via email. This is no accident, by the way. Stern clearly understands the utter uselessness of NextRequest, and the pain it causes. Here’s the story.
On July 22, 2020 at 4:36 p.m. NBC reporter Joel Grover, star of the appalling Streets of Shame series, emailed Stern with some requests for information about encampment sweeps:
Date: Wed, Jul 22, 2020 at 4:37 PM
Subject: Encampment Clean ups
To: Elena Stern (email@example.com) <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Cc: Corral, Amy (NBCUniversal) <Amy.Corral@nbcuni.com>
Hope you’ve been hanging in there.
I need some info about encampment clean ups. Can you tell me the number—and dates—of all clean ups that BOS did at the Gower/101 encampment in January and February 2020, and the same information for May and June 2020. This would include CARE clean ups, trash pick ups, etc. Please specify the type of clean up on each date.
Call if you have any questions.
It took Stern a mere two minutes to answer Grover: Hi – I will make the request and will ask how long it may take to gather that data…. Two minutes after that Stern emailed various LA San luminaries with Grover’s request: How long would it take to gather this information for the one location for four months? I will let him know that we are working on it.
But Sarah Bell, Stern’s subordinate in the sanitation flackery department, had a question: Has he submitted a CPRA? This led to the following unhinged rant from Elena Stern, nominally some sort of public relations professional:
From: Elena Stern <email@example.com>
Date: 7/22/20, 4:46 PM
To: Sarah Bell <firstname.lastname@example.org>
CC: Domingo Orosco <email@example.com>, Gabriel Miranda <Gabriel.Miranda@lacity.org>, Kelly Wakabayashi <Kelly.Wakabayashi@lacity.org>
You mean did he submit a request through the NextRequest system? No. Is that what we are going to make him do? How long would it take to do the data? At some point we have to decide whether or not it’s worth it to antagonize a reporter like Grover by making him go the bureaucratic route…..my experience in this arena says not, but that depends on how labor intensive this request really is.
Everyone ignored Stern’s rant,1 so the next day she emailed all her LA San buddies to ask for a status report: Can one of you please respond to this question of how long it would take to gather the info he’s looking for? I need to let him know if he needs to go the CPRA route. And Sarah Bell, who’s vying for the title of most semi-sane LA San public info staffer, basically told her to can it and wait: Elena we are working on it.
On July 23, 2020, still less than 24 hours after Grover’s initial email to Stern, Bell told Stern that it would take 8 more days to compile Grover’s information. This in itself is a crime. It routinely takes LA San 6 months to a year to produce records in response to my requests. In reply, Stern doubled down on her appalling and probably illegal favoritism towards Grover: Thanks — I will let him know….and that because it’s him, I’m not making him go through CPRA. And a mere six minutes after receiving Bell’s message Stern emailed Grover with the good news:
On August 4, Kelly Wakabayashi sent Stern the information that Grover asked for, and Stern forwarded it to Grover. This is thirteen days from Grover’s initial request. Just try getting anything at all out of LA San in thirteen days if you’re not a famous reporter. It’s not going to happen.
And this isn’t an isolated incident, either. In October 2020 the whole story repeated itself. I’ll spare you the details, although they’re interesting. You can find all the emails here on Archive.Org. But at some point Grover asked Stern for 30 days of encampment sweep schedules and she sent them to him as attachments to return emails just three days later.
Which suggested an experiment! So yesterday I emailed Stern myself, and asked her for 30 days of encampment sweep schedules:
I’m a reporter with michaelkohlhaas.org. I’m hoping you can send me copies of all the CARE/CARE+ confirmation sheets for the last 30 days.
M ■■■■■■ K ■■■■■■■
Stern’s reply came promptly but wasn’t nearly as agreeable as her correspondence with Grover: Please submit a CPRA, or request them from the UHRC, which generates them. But then, you already do get them directly everyday, don’t you? There’s no need to engage with this kind of nonsense, so I didn’t: So you won’t send them to me? It turns out that, unsurprisingly, Stern doesn’t understand the first thing about the Public Records Act. She’s completely fixated on using NextRequest to punish people whose points of view she doesn’t share: Please submit a CPRA request.
I mean, really. The California Public Records Act is very clear on the fact that there’s no prescribed form for a records request. Asking to see records is a CPRA request. Let’s point this out to Stern to see if she’ll say what she actually means: My first email was a CPRA request. My second email was a CPRA request. This email is a CPRA request. Should I submit a fourth?
And the mask came off! And she DID say it!!: M ■■■■■■ — all CPRAs are to be submitted through the NextRequest portal, as you have been doing. Please submit through that channel.
There are a number of interesting morals to this story. For instance, the fact that requesters aren’t the only ones who realize how much NextRequest sucks. City staffers understand this, and at least one of them is willing to use its overwhelming suckitude to punish reporters she disapproves of.
The City is willing to play favorites with reporters and other records requesters. We’ve seen such favoritism before, notably with LAPD. It’s not reasonable, and it’s almost certainly not legal. The CPRA doesn’t distinguish between professional reporters and any other kind of reporter, or even between reporters and any other kind of person. We all have the same rights under the law.
Not only that, but CPRA compliance is a fundamental right guaranteed by the Constitution of California, and every person enjoys that right to precisely the same degree, regardless of their occupation. Additionally, for the City of Los Angeles to choose favored reporters and give them records quickly and painlessly because they don’t want to “antagonize” them is fundamentally a violation of the free speech rights of everyone else.
The LAPD is famous for its unyielding attempts to control the public narrative. They refuse to release information, famously bodycam videos but plenty of other material as well, unless it promotes a story they’re trying to tell. They tweet out gun porn and videos via Twitter but won’t release any information about the photos or the videos. They have a huge (and troubled) public information office whose sole occupation seems to be plot twisting in LAPD’s favor.
But the rest of the City government does the same thing, albeit less flamboyantly, and it’s just as damaging. Public records belong to the public. They’re not grist for government propaganda mills. Probably the only fix for such pervasive shenanigans is a municipal sunshine law written into the City Charter. Join the Los Angeles Sunshine Coalition today!