The basic premise of the California Public Records Act is simple, articulated in a single sentence in its preamble: "Access to information concerning the conduct of the people's business is a fundamental and necessary right of every person in this state."
I'd recommend that everyone in Eureka City Hall take the time to read the act and reflect on its underlying principles, which the city frankly seems to be developing a track record of trampling.
In this week's cover story — as well as another hitting newsstands next week — Journal staff writer Linda Stansberry explores the city's May 2, 2016, eviction of a decades-old homeless encampment in the PalCo Marsh behind the Bayshore Mall. As I'm sure you'll recall, the evictions and the lead-up to them dominated local headlines and conversations for months. These cover stories are the product of months of Linda's hard work and dogged reporting, and, we think, offer a comprehensive view of what pushed the city to clear the marsh and how city officials worked over the course of a year — often contentiously — to formulate and execute a plan.
These stories would not have been possible without public records act requests — requests that you may recall became the topic of a bizarre May 10, 2016, city press release that accused us of threatening litigation and being in cahoots with plaintiffs in a highly publicized a lawsuit against the city. (We were not.)
Back on April 7, 2016, as plans to clear the marsh of an encampment that was home to several hundred homeless people became the focus of a heated public debate, Linda submitted a pair of records requests to the city. The first asked for all written correspondences "between city department heads, the city attorney and the city manager" from Feb. 1, 2015, through April 7, 2016, about "the Devil's Playground, the PalCo Marsh and homeless encampments." The second sought all written correspondences to and from members of the Eureka City Council and the mayor from Jan. 1, 2016 through April 7, 2016, regarding "homelessness within city limits."
Linda's reasons for the requests were pretty plain: We wanted to see what city department heads were saying to each other about the PalCo Marsh encampments from the time a personal injury lawsuit rendered them a massive liability through the planning of the May 2 eviction; we also wanted to know what council members were saying to and hearing from their constituents as the issue bubbled to a head. As I think you'll find in our coverage this week and next, we found some pretty interesting stuff.
But the city balked at the request, first extending its reply deadline out to 24 days instead of the customary 10 and then saying, "the city has reviewed your records request; the records requested are nondisclosable," noting all the included records were exempt from disclosure because they related to pending litigation or were attorney-client communications. We followed up with the city, saying we disagreed with the notion that the entirety of 17 months of public officials' emails — which included correspondences between councilmembers and constituents — could be seen as having been specifically prepared for use in litigation or protected by attorney-client privilege. If the city insisted on maintaining this stance, we said we'd bring the matter before a judge, who could then decide what the public should see and what it shouldn't.
The city quickly backed down and began — yes, began — reviewing the documents requested and releasing them to the Journal. In the end, over the course of four months, the city released more than 11,000 pages of documents for Linda to pore over. That's a win, right? Not so fast.
Included in those were at least 2,900 pages of documents that weren't responsive to our request — city newsletters, email blasts from the California League of Cities and emails from private citizens to department heads. (And that doesn't even include the additional thousands of pages of duplicate records, which included no less than 10 copies of the city's request for proposals to form a temporary sanctioned campground.) So why would the city complain about the staff burden of complying with our request only to compile, redact and scan thousands of documents we didn't ask for? It's a good question.
One could surmise that the city simply misinterpreted the request, and thought we were asking for any documents relating to "homelessness" and, despite the specific wording of the requests, also sought any emails members of the public sent department heads on the subject. A more cynical mind, however, might conclude the city — after its outright refusal failed — simply tried to drown us in paper, forcing us to wade through thousands of pages of repetitive nonsense to find the kernels of public interest we'd requested.
I wish I could say I believe otherwise, but I'd bet on the latter. The city's default mode seems to be to delay, deny and obfuscate when members of the public come asking to look at things the city's gatekeepers would rather not show them. After all, this is a city that just finished spending somewhere in the neighborhood of $100,000 on a years-long fight with the Journal to keep the public from seeing a video of what public employees did in plain sight on a public street. And it's the same city that's currently telling the Journal — and, by turn, you — that we don't have the right to look at the emails and text messages city councilmembers were sending on handheld devices from the dais during recent city council meetings when they should have been listening to public testimony, staff reports and deliberating in public view. (For the record, Arcata and Fortuna promptly complied with similar requests.)
In short, this is part of a pattern — a disconcerting one. Linda's reporting this week and next paints a picture of the less than functional decision making process that led to the May 2, 2016, clearing of the marsh. There were vehement disagreements, starts and stops, and a fair amount of vitriol. To be fair, that should probably be expected given the scope of the decades-old problem and the lack of resources the city had to deal with it. But none of that should be reason to shield that process from public view.
To this end, the California Public Records Act — which is now enshrined as a part of the state constitution — speaks more eloquently on the subject than I could ever hope to:
"The people of this state do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies which serve them. The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know. The people insist they may retain control over the instruments they have created."
Thadeus Greenson is the news editor at the Journal. Reach him at 442-1400, extension 321, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @thadeusgreenson.