If you spend any time at all asking the City of Los Angeles for copies of public records you’ll have realized that compliance with the Public Records Act is not a high priority of theirs. They violate it constantly, in small ways and large, intentionally and out of sheer careless indifference. They violate it because they can afford to pay out any number of settlements and most people won’t sue them. They violate it even though compliance with the CPRA is a fundamental right guaranteed by the Constitution of California.1
And now, although I’ve long suspected it to be true, I have proof that the City Attorney’s office actually advises them to decide whether to violate it based on whether or not they think the requester will sue them which, as Strefan Fauble so succinctly puts it in a top-secret confidential April 2019 email conversation, “would involve a lot more work.”
But it takes resources to sue them, so effectively this policy favors rich requesters and corporate requesters, even though the Constitution2 guarantees access to every person, which clearly means equal access. It’s surely no coincidence that rich people and corporations are much, much less likely to be critical of the City. This story begins with a request I sent to Dan Halden on March 12, 2019. I asked Halden for:
Halden waited out the statutory ten days before responding and then sent me this little slab of copypasta extending the response time by 14 days.3 And then, after having illegally waited out the 14 days, Halden denied my request as burdensome because there were about 600 PDF pages to redact:
This, as usual, is idiotic on its face. I can personally read and redact about 500 pages per hour. Even LAPD’s notoriously dishonest Director of Constitutional Policing Lizabeth Rhodes, who lies like a cop,4 admits that LAPD Discovery can process 150 pages per hour. This is low, because it’s a self-serving lie, but accepting it for the sake of argument suggests that CD13 would need fewer than four hours to process these records.5 So I answered Halden, pointing out that he was full of crap, and threatening a lawsuit.
Halden then forwarded my email to Deputy City Attorney Strefan Fauble, who at that time was staffing CPRA requests for Council offices, and asked what to do. Fauble’s response shows very clearly that compliance with the law is not the City’s main priority. Doing as little work as possible is a higher priority as is keeping the records out of my hands:
Now, of course the City is required to comply with the CPRA when the CPRA requires compliance. Whether or not a requester is likely to sue cannot conceivably be a reasonable factor to consider when deciding whether to produce records or not. So Fauble is determined to withhold the records unless Dundas thinks I might sue, in which case Fauble thinks it might be easier to produce. Dundas, who was once described to me by a well-known CPRA lawyer as “slightly less insane than the rest of the City Attorneys who handle CPRA over there,” is more realistic than Fauble:
Of course Dundas is correct about the writ judges. As of today I’ve filed 24 CPRA lawsuits and never once has a judge suggested that a few hundred records were enough to support a denial on “burdensomeness” grounds. In fact, they don’t seem to think that any number is too many as long as the respondent has enough time to process them.6
He’s also correct to ignore Fauble’s silly claim that my request “seems to lack a subject matter.” The CPRA doesn’t require a subject matter, only that the request is for reasonably identifiable records. The subject may come into play in court as part of a public interest analysis, but it’s certainly not required to have one to ask for the records. So Dundas ignores Fauble’s claim, which is surely the most judicious way to handle such ignorance from one’s professional peers.
Halden took Dundas’s advice and told me that it would take him three or four months to redact and produce the emails.7 Which shows the value of pushing back, of course. It also shows that the City of LA, which continues to deny requests as “burdensome” when there are only a few hundred responsive pages even though their attorney advises against it, does not care about compliance in itself. They care about not causing themselves extra work by being sued.
And remember they weren’t sure if I would sue them or not. If they’re pretty sure they will get sued they sometimes speed things up. For instance, the L.A. Times and famed CEQA/CPRA attorney Robert Silverstein get excellent and speedy service from the City. And that, if you made it this far and are still interested, is the subject of the next installment of this series about confidential CPRA advice from the Los Angeles City Attorney!
- At Article I Section 3.
- Of California, of course.
- Waiting ten days if ten days aren’t necessary, as they clearly were not in this case, is also a violation. But it’s not the kind of violation that the CPRA authorizes lawsuits for, so it’s effectively meaningless. (Which is an oversimplification. It’s not meaningless, but it’s not a cause of action under the CPRA itself. There are other routes to sue over this kind of violation but they’re riskier since they don’t guarantee fee shifting for prevailing requesters, like the CPRA does. Judges grant fees in CPRA actions because they’re required to, but they don’t seem to like it. One must tread carefully along these paths.
- Which is to say continuously, incoherently, and without needing any reason beyond having words to say.
- Halden said “documents” and I’m saying “pages.” PDFs have an objective number of pages but emails do not, until they’re exported to PDF. The City refuses to produce emails as email files and in response I refuse to recognize a page/document distinction for emails. In any case, if they weren’t so fixated on never doing anything I ask them to do, it would be so much easier to redact them, because email files are plain text and can be redacted with search/replace. So my time estimate is probably wrong, but it’s surely wrong on the high side, so it’s OK.
- By which I mean that judges would probably be unsympathetic to a requester who sued because the City didn’t produce X documents quickly enough, but I believe they’d be very sympathetic indeed to a requester who sued because the City wouldn’t produce X documents after the City explicitly refused to do so because the number X was too high.
- Which is ridiculous also, because that’s like 150 documents per month, about 35 per week, about 7 per workday. Really, I can’t imagine this taking more than two hours net, which Halden ought to be able to knock out in a couple weeks easy, depending on how many other requests of mine were pending at the time. Which matters because I’ve never expected the City to process my requests other than one at a time in order, which they refuse to do because otherwise they wouldn’t be able to whine about how many requests I make.