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We were pretty surprised recently when the city attorney’s office refused to turn over records we’d requested, citing attorney-client privilege for a non-attorney, Gerry Braun.
Surprised because that was a new obfuscation we haven’t heard before. But public officials dodging records requests, in and of itself, is far from surprising. We deal with it every day.
The city attorney’s office under Jan Goldsmith fought to hide emails sent from private accounts, a practice the California Supreme Court ruled violated the California Public Records Act earlier this year. There was also the time Goldsmith sought to freeze the media out of Mayor Kevin Faulconer’s special Chargers stadium task force.
One of the most memorable rejections we got recently was when the city declined a request of ours to view body camera footage, citing an obscure animal taxation law. That turned out to be a simple mistake, but the city corrected itself by then citing a different law. Body camera footage, though it was billed as a transparency tool for the public, remains virtually impossible for the public to access.
When they’re not accidentally citing animal taxation laws, public agencies often cite rules that do allow them to keep certain records private, but they often do it when the exemptions don’t, in fact, apply to the records being sought. If you’re a journalist or member of the public who doesn’t have the resources to fight these claims, it’s essentially like a door being slammed in your face. If you do fight for the records, however, sometimes you can prove the public agencies are wrong, like when we successfully sued San Diego Unified this year over claiming records related to the Marne Foster case should be kept private. The court disagreed, and the district was forced to turn over the documents.
When they’re not declining to turn over records altogether, public agencies often use another trick to deter or delay: They tell journalists they can have the records — if they pay sometimes exorbitantly high printing costs. The law allows agencies to charge for time and paper, but typically, journalists are seeking electronic records in an electronic format. The demands for thousands of dollars in printed paper, then, simply delay the whole process.
San Diego Unified recently told Ashly McGlone, for example, it would cost $3,000 to see a batch of emails she’s seeking. The documents are electronic, and she doesn’t want a stack of 3,000 paper emails. The records still haven’t been produced, and there’s no ETA for when we’ll ever get them.
That’s par for the course.
Finally, agencies are allowed to redact documents to protect certain information deemed private. But there’s often no way to know if they’re making inappropriate redactions, either out of a genuine but misguided attempt to guard people’s privacy, or a malicious attempt to keep away information they don’t want out.
Our pal and former VOSD reporter Rob Davis tweeted a hilarious series of redactions from records he sought this week, in which the Department of Veterans Affairs said newspaper stories Davis himself had written and published in a national newspaper were private info, and previous emails they’d already sent him, couldn’t be released.
What VOSD Learned This Week
San Diego is not very good at helping people get from one place to another.
In an explosive story this week, Mario Koran revealed that San Diego Unified sends some parents to collections agencies if they can’t pay the $500 or more the district charges to let children ride the school bus.
Then there’s San Diego’s bike-share program, which isn’t going well: On top of the city’s lack of bike infrastructure, the city and the company that runs the program haven’t followed best practices that helped bike shares flourish in other cities.
On the VOSD Podcast, Mark Cafferty from the San Diego Regional Economic Development Corp. talks about San Diego’s bid for a new Amazon HQ and why regional leaders think we’ve got a shot despite Amazon’s preference for a place with stellar public transit.
Lisa Halverstadt dispensed of the El Cajon mayor’s claim that all homeless people are addicted to drugs or alcohol in our latest Fact Check.
Inaccurate claims about the homeless can get in the way of serious policy discussions about how to help San Diego’s most vulnerable residents. But some of those discussions are still happening. Case in point: There’s yet another proposal on the table to fund affordable housing via a 2018 ballot measure.
Arrests of undocumented immigrants are up under President Donald Trump, but that hasn’t yet translated into a spike in actual deportations.
Even with the enforcement crackdown, however, it’s utterly possible for most San Diegans to go about their everyday lives without thinking much about the border. That’s not really true for people who live on the other side, in Tijuana.
San Diego Gas and Electric has an unlikely ally in its fight to build a $600 million natural gas pipeline.
Whether to let SDG&E build the pipeline is one of the many big decisions involving San Diego that is before the CPUC, a relatively obscure state agency that holds local ratepayers’ fate in its hands.
What I’m Reading
- This is the smartest take I’ve read to date on Trump supporters and what motivates them. (Hint: It’s not what they said it was in the run-up to 2016.) Whatever you do, read until the very end. (Politico Magazine)
- It already feels like this was published ages ago, but this story is big and it’s disturbing: Harvey Weinstein hired spies posing as women’s rights advocates to collect info on his accusers and the journalists investigating their stories. (New Yorker)
- Here are some incredible accounts of how Election Night 2016 unfolded from the biggest players in politics and journalism. (Esquire)
- Everyone who cares about local news should be deeply disturbed by what just happened to the Gothamist network. (Citylab)
- Women are finally letting their anger set them free. And that’s no small thing, because it takes a lot of bravery to be angry. (Harper’s Bazaar, New York Times)
Line of the Week
“Those with the hours and years of specialized training are expected to be treated like heavily-armed babies – shielded from surprises, loud noises, or unexpected movements.” – An appropriate takeaway from a story about sheriff’s deputy killing a 12-pound terrier owned by a woman who called for help with a harassing neighbor.