I just learned of an interesting public records suit filed in September 2019 by Venskus & Associates for the La Brea Willoughby Coalition against the City of Los Angeles. They’re fighting upzoning around the Purple Line extension, which I don’t understand enough to comment on. But irrespective of the merits1 of their cause the City of Los Angeles has repeatedly violated their right to due process in appeals and pretty much, as the City will do, every possible other arena.
And that extends to some requests for records that the Coalition made of the City for materials having to do with the Purple Line Transit Neighborhood Plan. And the City eventually produced more than 2000 pages of the wrong stuff, which is a favorite tactic of theirs. They also didn’t claim any exemptions. After almost a year of debate, during which the City finally did claim that some of the material sought was exempt, the Coalition brought this suit. You can read the petition and the City’s ridiculously inapropos reply on Archive.Org.
According to the petition the City wouldn’t produce some of the requested material because it contained drafts of the City’s upzoning policies. The City claimed, according to the petition, that:
[t]hese drafts represent preliminary ideas and thoughts related to the policy initiative and do not reflect that [sic] final policy direction provided by City management or the City’s decision makers. Producing such documents would create the real risk of the public being misinformed as to the components of the policy initiative. Through the release of various documents and through numerous public workshops, the public has been provided with staff’s initial recommendations related to this policy initiative and an opportunity to provide input on them. This process will continue until such time that staff finalizes its recommendations to the City’s decision makers.
Which is all fine and dandy, even if true, but these kinds of qualitative theories of why an agency might prefer not to release records are not enough under the CPRA to justify not releasing them. The law is very clear2 that an “agency shall justify withholding any record by demonstrating that the record in question is exempt under express provisions of this chapter”.
Why is the City of LA fighting this lawsuit? What a freaking waste of time and money. On January 26, 2016, the City of Los Angeles filed its answer to the petition filed by Colleen Flynn and Carol Sobel on behalf of the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition and the National Lawyers Guild Los Angeles seeking a writ of mandate ordering the LAPD to stop messing about and turn over the goddamned goodies. (You can find a collection of filings from this suit here). Paragraphs 1 through 9 of the initial complaint are background, and Julie Raffish, who wrote the answer, gets to indulge her evident taste for dark sarcasm in her responses, e.g. at paragraph 4 denying that the NLG is a non-profit legal association.
She also displays a wry, deadpan humor. For instance, in paragraph 3 the plaintiffs assert that the Coalition to Stop LAPD Spying “empowers its members to work collectively against police repression and to dismantle domestic spying operations” and that therefore the Coalition has an interest in the LAPD’s adhering to the Public Records Act. Julie Raffish has the City admitting that the Coalition is interested, but claiming that, as to the rest of the allegations they “lack sufficient information and knowledge to form a belief as to the truth…” of, I guess, whether there are “police repression” and “domestic spying operations” to be dismantled and worked collectively against. Dry as a bone, is Julie Raffish, and isn’t lawyerly humor fun! But the public records stuff is where it gets really interesting: Continue reading City of Los Angeles Files Answer to Stop LAPD Spying Coalition Public Records Act Petition: Admits Guilt, Expects Reward→
The Brown Act is the California law governing public meetings. It’s serious business. § 54959 states that
Each member of a legislative body who attends a meeting of that legislative body where action is taken in violation of any provision of this chapter, and where the member intends to deprive the public of information to which the member knows or has reason to know the public is entitled under this chapter, is guilty of a misdemeanor.
Now, that intent element is a little sticky. Evidently it’s not a crime “to deprive the public of information” if you’re just ignorant of the law or too arrogant to understand that the law applies to you or whatever. But at least some members of some groups subject to the Brown Act must be guilty of a misdemeanor when, e.g., they explicitly deny members of the public access to documents which the Brown Act states explicitly must be made available to the public “immediately.” When a member of a body subject to the Brown Act says “no, you can’t look at the document,” the intent is clear. The member “has reason to know” the law because it’s their job to know the law, them being a member of a Brown-Act body. Bang! Misdemeanor. Then how does the law get enforced in such a case?
The procedure is laid out in the Act itself (§54960 et seq.). Either the DA or a member of the public can go to court and ask for injunctive relief of various kinds or else “any interested party” can write a letter to the criminals, point out their crime, give them 30 days to think about it, and allow them the option of promising never to do the crime in the future albeit without admitting that they actually did it in the past. As far as we can see, no one has ever gone to jail for violating the Brown Act (although see this story about a guy in Illinois who placed a whole county board of supervisors under citizen’s arrest). Continue reading How to Enforce the Law→