The City of Los Angeles famously and frequently violates the California Public Records Act. One of the most difficult-to-counter ways in which they do this is to deny that they have responsive records at all. It’s pernicious because the only recourse for violations is to file a petition in Los Angeles County Superior Court but the statute only authorizes petitions when:
it is made to appear by verified petition … that certain public records are being improperly withheld from a member of the public.1
That is, if the City says there are no records and there’s no evidence to the contrary it’s likely a judge will believe the City’s claim and deny the petition.2 Which means it’s often useful to have evidence that responsive records exist even before requesting them. It’s also really important to duplicate requests to as many City departments as may have copies, since they all have different search methods.3
Fairly regularly one City department will say that there are no responsive records while another one will produce proof that the first was lying. For a recent and spectacular example of this phenomenon take a look at this stunningly good Twitter thread from @LANCWatch.
Sometimes even the same department will produce proof that they themselves are lying, an example of which is the subject of today’s post! On June 19, 2021 I asked LA Sanitation for some information about ride-alongs on their CARE/CARE+ homeless encampment sweeps:
They ignored my request for a month without giving a reason, which is in itself a violation of the law.4 Finally, on July 21, 2021 they replied, saying that they didn’t know what I meant by ride-alongs and anyway, whatever I meant, they didn’t do ride-alongs:5
In order to ensure an accurate response to your request, please respond to the following questions seeking clarification. LASAN may be unable to respond to your request until your response is received.
1. Clarify what is meant by Ride-Along
As of this date LASAN does not schedule any type of Ride-Along activities.
Which is some kind of nonsense, because I didn’t just make this request out of nowhere, left field, or even the blue. In fact, I was alerted to the fact that LA Sanitation does in fact arrange for encampment sweep ride-alongs by a set of emails that LA Sanitation produced to me a few days before I made the request.
So for instance, take a look at this February 2020 conversation between LA San flack Leon Ho and CD4 field deputy Milene Minassians6 in which they discuss an upcoming ride-along with the CARE/CARE+ teams:
Ah I just realized the ride along is also next week, we could probably hit two birds with one stone and just chat about Coldwater during the ride along.
LA San staffer Leon Ho didn’t tell Minassians that “[a]s of this date LASAN does not schedule any type of Ride-Along activities.” Not at all. In fact, Ho told her that he wouldn’t “be able to make the ride along but please feel free to discuss your concerns with Jonelle and Howard.”
The Howard that Ho’s talking about is Howard Wong, who is Chief Environmental Officer in the Bureau of Sanitation. In fact, Minassians emailed Wong a couple weeks later confirming that not only had the ride-along taken place, but that Howard Wong himself participated. So when LA San responded to my request by telling me that LA San didn’t do ride-alongs well, it might have been worth asking their Chief Environmental Officer about it:
I hope you’ve been well since our CD4 Care team ride along! Thanks for making the time to allow me and Nikki to observe the Care team at work.
This was not just a one-time thing, either. Behold a September 2020 email discussion between LA San staffer Sara Gonzalez and various CD4 luminaries, including Catherine Landers, Nikki Ezhari, and then-repster David Ryu’s chief of staff, Nick Greif, in which they discuss both a recent ride-along and an upcoming one:
Thank you for helping arrange today’s ridealong I learned so much and your team was great. Our Chief of Staff and Director of Special Projects want to go out next Tuesday, they are both included herein.
On Wed, Aug 26, 2020 at 9:13 AM Sara Gonzalez <firstname.lastname@example.org> wrote:
I am glad everything worked out yesterday. I will notify the supervisor of the next visit and make sure those locations are on the schedule for the team.
On Thu, Sep 3, 2020 at 3:01 PM Nicholas Greif <email@example.com> wrote:
Hi Sara, confirming this schedule for Tuesday. Are we meeting at Forman Ave At Riverside Dr and at what time?
On Fri, Sep 4, 2020 at 6:24 AM Sara Gonzalez <firstname.lastname@example.org> wrote:
I will make sure those locations are on the schedule for Tuesday 9/8/2020. The teams start at 8am. It would be best to follow the team in a separate car. I will provide you with ECI’s contact information Tuesday morning.
And again in December 2020 Sarah Flaherty, a CD14 field deputy, brought up some kind of staff observation of CARE/CARE+ teams to LA San staffer Sarah Bell, in what turned out to be ambiguous wording:
Our NELA field staff would like to tag along on tomorrow’s CARE services. Can you help me arrange this? I’d like to know the CARE team for future reference as well as the LAHSA portion of the CARE+ teams in our district. If you could connect me with these folks it would be very helpful.
To which Sarah Bell responded promptly, offering a ride-along and confirming the existence of earlier ride-alongs:
Nice to meet you! Tomorrow doesn’t work for our team but we can definitely set something up for next Friday, 12/11. I have copied Sal and Victor, who likely met during previous ride-alongs, for awareness. We can confirm the details in the early part of next week.
It turns out, according to Flaherty’s response, that CD14 wasn’t seeking a ride-along, but this surely doesn’t matter with respect to LA San’s response to my CPRA request. After all, if it were actually true that, as they stated, “[a]s of this date LASAN does not schedule any type of Ride-Along activities,” then why would LA San staffer Sarah Bell offer to schedule a ride-along for CD14 staffer Sarah Flaherty? Why would she mention “previous ride-alongs”?
Of course they schedule ride-alongs, so when they told me they did not they were either lying outright or else making stuff up without actually having checked. Either one is a violation of the law but whether it becomes actionable depends on how the request develops.
The more important point is that I knew the response was inaccurate because of my other requests. Also I’m really used to being lied to about CPRA requests so I know to read responses skeptically. And I work with a lot of really talented and dedicated lawyers who win every time so if that’s going to influence the City’s request response tactics it ought to only help me.
Most requesters aren’t in such a favorable position, though, so the City’s tactics are likely to be very effective in derailing their requests. But the purpose of the CPRA is to allow all people to understand the workings of their governments, not just well-positioned obsessives like me.
The fact that the City of LA dedicates its enormous resources to violating the constitutional requirement to comply with the CPRA is a huge, huge problem. Suing them repeatedly isn’t helping at all, apparently. There’s probably no solution short of amending the Charter to add a municipal sunshine ordinance. Let’s see, shall we?
- See the CPRA at §6259(a).
- In my experience LA County Superior Court judges are very deferential to City claims which are uncontradicted by evidence. That is, if the City says they don’t have records, no matter how implausible such a claim might be, and the petitioner doesn’t have a plausible reason to think that they actually do have them a judge will believe the City. But when there is evidence, also in my experience, the judges weigh it fairly.
- They also have different secrets to keep, so they don’t all lie about the same things, which can be very useful.
- Albeit an unenforceable violation. It’s not possible to file a petition after just a month of being ignored because it’s too likely that they’ll respond before the petition can be filed, which moots the issue. In practice it’s necessary to wait at least a few months and send at least one follow-up request asking for a timely response. This is surely why this requirement of the law, that the City make an initial response to the request within ten or twenty four days, is so widely ignored. It’s found in the CPRA at §6253(c).
- It’s hard to understand how they could be so sure that they didn’t do ride-alongs if they don’t know what I mean by ride-alongs, but that’s indeed what they said.
- At that time working for former CD4 rep David Ryu.