Someone at our member coffee this week joked that we’re becoming the new Cory Briggs.
That is, we’ve gotten involved in some legal disputes.
Fortunately, we aren’t getting sued, but we’re trying to compel the release of information in two different cases; in Carson, we’re hoping to secure correspondence from public officials involved in making stadium decisions, and we’re trying to obtain private security footage of a police shooting in San Diego that is being held under a protective court order.
We’ve also obtained documents from Poway Unified and other government agencies lately only after threatening them with litigation, too. The California Public Records Act is very good, except that in the end, you can only enforce it with litigation. That is, public officials can stonewall you knowing that there is no enforcement mechanism besides a threat to sue.
Not every newsroom has resources to be able to put teeth to the public records act. As a nonprofit, we’re fortunate to benefit from the volunteer work of amazing lawyers like Felix Tinkov, a VOSD member for many years. We hope to have good news soon on our effort to get documents from Carson that he is helping with. He helps us with several records requests and demands, like our recent dispute with the city attorney over not-private emails about our own stadium discussions.
The threat of the Chargers moving to Carson has driven our elected leaders to move mountains to keep the team here. Yet it’s been suggested, and the Carson mayor even acknowledged it was a possibility, that Carson wasn’t real. We think it’s only right that we do our best to evaluate everything that is public about Carson so you can put this threat in the best context available.
When we have to pay, like we are along with several media organizations to get the police shooting footage through federal court, we can ask members to help foot the bill. Thankfully, when we did last week, we successfully raised just over the $1,000 we needed, with more than 30 donations.
Media has been doing this sort of thing for a long time. But it’s not clear how legal budgets — especially for proactive efforts like this — will survive as media companies evolve or disappear. As the industry transforms, we’re trying to transform this part of it by sharing the cost, accessing the services of volunteers and even promoting our disputes so that people will want to see how they turn out.
That’s why you might be hearing about this more than you would in the past.
Even when a public agency agrees records are public, sometimes it tries to demand a hefty fee. A ruling this week from a D.C. court should make it a little easier for advocacy groups and media outlets to avoid burdensome fees when it comes to obtaining public records from the federal government. From Politico:
The ruling from a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit said the Federal Trade Commission and a district court had been too dismissive of fee waivers sought by a fledgling conservative group, Cause of Action, when it filed FOIA requests with the FTC.
That’s heartening to groups like ours, where cost concerns play a big role in the decisions we make, even when we know that in the end, the information belongs to the public.
There’s probably a joke to be made about the bloodthirsty media conspiring with even-more-bloodthirsty lawyers, but whoever’s making it might just be trying to distract you from the records they’ve got locked away.
What VOSD Learned This Week
Anyone who’s ever even casually observed the press – or dealt with a kid brother or sister – knows that the more someone tries to keep something under wraps, the more you pique everyone’s interest.
That’s what got us thinking, at least a year ago, about profiling school board member Marne Foster. For her entire tenure on the school board, Foster has routinely declined to speak to members of the media, even on seemingly benign subjects. Now she’s the school board president, someone who’s supposed to act as the group’s official spokesperson.
Throw a hazy grand jury report into the mix that raised more questions about Foster than it answered (it doesn’t even officially name her, for example, as its subject), plus an odd recent fundraiser, and Mario Koran decided to dig in.
His big takeaway was that Foster, who has two sons and says she always acts as “a mother first,” can let that passion get in the way of her position as a board member. Still, her supporters and community members praise the work she’s done advocating on behalf of black and low-income students.
Koran’s profile also marked the first time we’ve heard at length from Mitzi Lizarraga, the former principal at the School of Creative and Performing Arts, where Foster’s son attended school. A dust-up between Foster, Lizarraga and a school counselor over a college recommendation letter for Foster’s son led to Lizarraga leaving the district, and ultimately the Grand Jury investigation. Lizarraga’s version of what went down, in a nutshell: Foster overstepped her bounds to secure special treatment for her son. Foster says Lizarraga and the counselor didn’t like her, and took that out on her son.
Leaving the accusations against Foster aside, just what can happen to a school board member accused of misconduct? Not all that much, it turns out.
What Else VOSD Learned
• In the ongoing civil case against a police officer who shot an unarmed man, the city is turning once again to an expert whose work has come under intense scrutiny.
• The developer of Lilac Hills took part in a vote to recommend the approval of Lilac Hills. The project is just one of many that, if given special approval, could go up in areas where the risk of wildfires is extremely high.
• If the mayor doesn’t make a decision soon about the location of a possible Convention Center expansion, the market might decide for him.
What I’m Reading
• Every single line of this essay on Serena Williams, tennis and black excellence is fantastic. (New York Times Magazine)
• After the New York Times’ epic story about how hard it is for working parents (and everyone, really) at Amazon, one former employee describes having her health care canceled while she was on maternity leave and going through cancer treatments. (Medium)
• Lisa Miller poured through volumes of court records to piece together this chilling, detailed account of what exactly happened in the Slender Man stabbing case. (New York)
Line of the Week
“A thing you should know is that there are very few people to root for in this story.” – from a GQ examination of the people who populate SeekingArrangement.com.