Twice now, the District Attorney’s Office has declined my requests to talk directly with Bonnie Dumanis about DA Watch and her open government policies. Here’s the last e-mail from district attorney spokesman Steve Walker on Monday.
I received your voicemail. Thanks for offering us the opportunity to respond. However, instead of an interview, we will let our previous written statement to you on this matter stand.
Since the office is refusing an interview, I’m going to ask Dumanis a few questions here and briefly explained why I’m asking them.
Bonnie, thanks for reading my blog! Can you tell me how copying gang data impacts the cost of your office’s shelves and computer cables?
Dumanis wants to charge us for her existing office supplies, scheduled maintenance and annual utility bills. The office supplies include computer cables and shelves that computers sit on. Copying the gang data won’t change how much these cost the office this year. Taxpayers have already paid for them.
We’ve asked around, and we haven’t found another government agency that interprets the California Public Records Act like your office. Is everyone else wrong?
When many other agencies charge for compiling data, they only charge for additional labor. The District Attorney’s Office charges for labor and overhead like those shelves and computer cables. Open government advocates say the law prohibits charging people for that overhead.
For months, I’ve been talking with data specialists around San Diego, journalists across the state, officials at various levels of government and attorneys who specialize in media law and legal advocates. Not one had heard of another agency in California that charges for data like Dumanis.
In 2005, the state attorney general said government agencies can’t charge for “maintaining” electronic records. In this case, your office wants to charge $168 for scheduled maintenance. Why do you think the state attorney general is wrong?
Weighing on a dispute over the cost of data, the attorney general wrote, “The fee may not include expenses associated with the [agency’s] initial gathering of the information, or with initial conversion of the information into an electronic format, or with maintaining the information.”
Let’s say we pay $1,354 for the gang data. How will we know whether copying the data actually took the amount of time you estimate?
The office has not explained how it estimated the amount of time it would take to copy the data. It refused to provide a copy of the work needed to copy the data. Citing security concerns, it also refused to provide information about its computer systems that might call its estimates into question.
How prosecutors charge people of crimes ultimately falls on your shoulders. Don’t you want to know what the gang data shows?
Public agencies occasionally provide data, even from complex systems, for free. Sometimes they waive charges because we ask them to. In other cases, the agency wants to examine the information contained in the data just as much as we do.
The gang data we’re requesting will directly address the following questions: Are prosecutors alleging gang crimes more often? What types of crimes? How often do prosecutors drop the charge in plea deals? How often do judges or juries reject it?
In February, I asked the office why it doesn’t already keep statistics on the gang charge. Isn’t this data of interest to Dumanis? “No, not particularly,” Deputy District Attorney Richard Armstrong wrote back. “Numerical data on the allegation’s use might be informative in other areas, but not as to the district attorney’s management of her office and its caseload.”
We will continue to seek answers to these questions, but in the meantime, if you have any questions for me, please do not hesitate to send an e-mail to email@example.com. (Bonnie, I’d like to hear from you, too.)
And stay tuned for more DA Watch.
— KEEGAN KYLE