I’ve fought the city for weeks to get 692 e-mails they kept secret. Finally got some today. What was so super-classified that the city believed disclosing it would’ve harmed the public?
An e-mail a civic activist forwarded from Flex Your Power entitled “22 Ways to Save Energy and Water in an Apartment, and more.”
What’s inexplicable about it: The activist, Don Wood, forwards those e-mails to me, too. The city actually kept e-mails secret from me that were sent to me.
Though Mayor Jerry Sanders has repeatedly pledged to make government decision-making transparent and honest, the city erred on the side of secrecy with absolutely no conceivable legal justification to keep secret e-mails that I already had.
Let’s recap. Three-and-a-half months ago, I sent a straightforward request for records to Darren Pudgil, the spokesman for Mayor Jerry Sanders, asking for e-mails about the city’s now-shelved water cuts plan. They’re public documents under state law.
I patiently went back-and-forth with Pudgil for months trying to narrow the scope of that request. Finally, in June, the city produced some e-mails, but kept 692 secret — nearly half of what I requested. I challenged the city for them. Pudgil ignored me. So did the City Attorney’s Office. Then we threatened to sue.
Today, at last, the city released 374 more e-mails. Its attorneys appear to have analyzed the secret e-mails to determine whether they should be released — an analysis that was either missing or inconsistently applied before. We’re still weighing our legal options.
So what’s all the fuss about? What e-mails were so important that the city claimed the public would be better off if they were kept secret? A look at the secret e-mails released today doesn’t yield any coherent answer. There’s simply no rhyme or reason to what the city tried to keep secret.
The secret e-mails released today include:
- Thirty-three e-mails that Don Wood, a local civic activist, sent to general distribution lists, which include me and Gerry Braun, the mayor’s special projects director.
The city kept secret e-mails that Wood forwarded such as e-mailed weekly newsletters from a state water association that are publicly available and that had no comments written on them by city staff.
The city kept secret e-mails that solely included pdfs of public documents that Wood sent out.
The city kept secret six e-mails that Wood forwarded from Flex Your Power, which offered those 22 tips about saving water and energy in apartments.
Why did the city keep them secret? The City Attorney’s Office claimed that they were part of the city’s deliberative process and that revealing them may have kept city officials from candidly discussing policy in the future.
But the city didn’t deliberate a single thing in the e-mails. Nothing. Wood doesn’t work for the city and no city workers commented on the e-mails. They’re just innocuous forwards.
They were only released after Cory Briggs, an attorney representing us, threatened to sue the city.
- Several e-mails critiquing our coverage of the city’s water-cuts plan.
One e-mail from Darren Pudgil, the mayor’s spokesman, criticized my story about the perceived unfairness of the now-shelved plan. The story noted that even residents who’ve conserved could be penalized by the city’s plan, which based cuts on historic use.
Gerry Braun, the mayoral aide, forwarded Pudgil’s critique to Rachel Laing, a mayoral spokesman. Braun wrote: “Fyi — Darren (Pudgil) lays the lumber to Rob “the Eiminator” Davis.”
“Nice!” Laing replied.
I e-mailed Braun today to ask what he was trying to say. “A typo,” he replied. “I forgot the ‘l’ in ‘Eliminator.’ Sorry.”
Another e-mail was sent from a former Irvine Ranch Water District official to a city Water Department official after my initial story ran about misrepresentations that the city had been making about Irvine Ranch. Its subject: “Your in the paper but I do have a solution.”
Yet another e-mail from Pudgil suggested that the mayor’s staff planned to brief Mike Lee, a Union-Tribune reporter, in March about the water-cuts plan, but said the city should hold off scheduling such a meeting with me.
“Please do NOT schedule anything with Rob Davis yet,” Pudgil wrote.
“I will NOT contact Rob until we’ve talked,” responded Bill Harris, another mayoral spokesman.
- An e-mail containing a two-year-old confidential attorney-client privileged document that Rani Gupta, our former City Hall reporter, had sent to Laing.
- Copies of a talking-points memo drafted after our stories ran documenting the misrepresentations that the city’s Water Department officials made about the challenges of implementing a fairer plan.
The city didn’t disclose 18 e-mails today that it mistakenly released to me already. In a letter we received today, Andrew Jones, assistant city attorney, said:
[A] significant number of emails and attachments that the City was entitled to withhold under the deliberative process privilege have already been mistakenly released.