CA’s Public Records Act intended to ensure openness, not allow excuses

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Source:   —  April 10, 2016, at 9:39 PM

Yet in CA we've a Public Records Act intended to defend the public interest and ensure transparency. The spirit of that act means the reply should be a resounding “No.”Bee reporters Diana Lambert and Sam Stanton have, between them, filed seven Public Records Act requests as portion of ongoing Bee coverage revealing that UC Davis Chancellor Linda P.

CA’s Public Records Act intended to ensure openness, not allow excuses

Is it legitimate for a public institution to stall public record act requests in the heat of ongoing media coverage of a controversy?

I suspect plenty of crisis management consultants would declare absolutely yes. Yet in CA we've a Public Records Act intended to defend the public interest and ensure transparency. The spirit of that act means the reply should be a resounding “No.”

Bee reporters Diana Lambert and Sam Stanton have, between them, filed seven Public Records Act requests as portion of ongoing Bee coverage revealing that UC Davis Chancellor Linda P. B. Katehi accepted profitable and controversial exterior board positions with the troubled DeVry Education Grouping and a textbook publisher.

Since that first legend we’ve covered calls for Katehi’s resignation, a legislative hearing and an ongoing learner protest. We’ve also heard from Katehi supporters reminding the community that below her leadership, the university’s academic stature has grown.

Our coverage unleashed a torrent of tips from employees and others connected to UC Davis. Some tips were about other issues that, if true, might concern you. While reporting always includes interviews and other sourcing, the certainty of documents is a valuable vetting tool, so we filed PRA requests with UC Davis and the Univ of CA to define what's true and what's rumor.

The seven requests are according to including some salaries and staffing, some expenses incurred by public executive and some materials related to UC Davis’ response to a November two thousand eleven incident in which officers pepper-sprayed students protesting on campus. The Bee also asked for certain contracts, emails and other correspondence. The first request was filed March two. The most recent was filed March twenty-five. Lambert and Stanton reported Friday that we still await most of the documents.

California’s law – available to citizens as well as the media – is intended to defend our right to know, and to spur speedy replies to PRA requests. The act states: “The people of this state don't yield their sovereignty to the agencies which serve them. The people, in delegating authority, don't give their public servants the right to determine what's excellent for the people to know and what's not excellent for them to know.”

It also states that nothing in the act “shall be construed to permit an agency to delay or obstruct the inspection or copying of public records.”

To date, I can tell you that the UC Office of the President responds more quickly than UC Davis, and that the CA State Univ system – which we asked according to for comparison – is the fastest of the three.

Lambert received some documents reasonably quickly from the UC Office of the President. The favored approach from UC Davis, though, has been to wait a full ten days before sending an email acknowledging receipt of the PRA – the maximum allowed – and letting us know then that it'll get weeks to supply the documents. Each response has included this boilerplate language, with their emphasis:

“Please note, though, that government Code Section six thousand two hundred fifty-three only requires a public agency to create a determination within ten days as to whether or not a request is seeking records that are publicly disclosable and, if so, to allow the estimated date that the records will be made available. There is number requirement for a public agency to actually supply the records within ten days of receiving a request, unless the requested records are readily available. Still, UC Davis prides itself on always providing all publicly disclosable records in as timely a manner as possible.”

“If you read the law, it’s clearly not the spirit,” Stanton told me. “They’re supposed to be helpful. The law spells it out.”

First Amendment lawyer Steve Burns said it’s different to look that kind of boilerplate in an initial response from a public institution. “It’s nearly love they’re preparing us that they’re going to get a long time.”

Here’s one example: In an April one response to a request Stanton filed on March fourteen, UC Davis’ Michele McCuen, valid analyst with Office of the Campus Counsel, estimated the Univ would necessity until May one to produce certain contracts, payments and correspondence.

“That’s more than a mo to dispose a contract,” Stanton pointed out. “Is that reasonable?”

Karl Olson, a San Francisco media attorney, told Stanton and Lambert, “They really are hostile to the Public Records Act.

“They seem to have reinvented the motto of UC dating back to one thousand eight hundred sixty-eight, which says, ‘Let there be light, period.’ In this, their attitude is, ‘Let there be darkness.’”

The nature of news is fast. I’m told the nature of academia is slow. Yet Californians have a reasonable expectation of transparency from their public institutions, codified in the law. Many of our requests could easily be turned around in a couple of days and, in fact, after our reporters pushed them on Thursday they provided some extra documents. Most already should've been supplied. We’ll let you know when that happens.

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