Today’s news of a letter from attorney Cory Briggs calling on San Diego Mayor Bob Filner to resign is surprising, but understandable. The letter, addressed directly to Filner, questions the mayor’s dedication to “open, accountable and responsible government.”
As a recent addition to the city’s news media, I’ve been shocked and frustrated at how difficult it’s been to get the most basic information from the city.
What have been routine requests in other cities where I’ve worked have been flatly ignored by the mayor’s communications team. Phone calls go unreturned. Emails feel like they’re being tossed into a black hole. On one occasion, I was able to get through to someone in the Real Estate Assets Department, only to be denied information about the square footage of a public park.
I’ve seen similar complaints raised by journalists during Filner’s monthly "pen and paper" sessions for the press. Attending one is pretty much the only way to get a quote from Filner besides running into him on the street or hoping he'll hold a press conference on something—anything—before your deadline. I’ve watched him lightly brush transparency concerns aside with the air of a benevolent dictator who simply can’t be bothered with the burdens of a free press.
In response, CityBeat has resorted to using the state Public Records Act to try to extract information from City Hall. This makes our job exceedingly more difficult. Basic city staff reports have taken more than a week to be turned over.
Most recently, I submitted a PRA request while writing a story about the city’s ambulance contract. I wanted to see if concerns outlined in a 2011 Auditor’s report had persisted during subsequent years.
On the last day of the 10-day period governments have to fulfill information requests, the mayor’s staff issued this note:
Please be advised that we have received your request for public records dated June 26, 2013. To the extent that the City has public records, we will make them available for your review pursuant to the California Public Records Act. We reserve the right to withhold and/or redact any records or information that may be exempt from disclosure under the CPRA, and/or other applicable legal privileges. I anticipate that these documents will be available within the next two weeks.
Under the law, the city cannot withhold information if it’s readily available. If gathering the documents is time consuming, they have the right to a 14-day extension. However, according to the California Public Records Act, section 6253(c), there must be a stated reason:
In unusual circumstances, the time limit prescribed in this section may be extended by written notice by the head of the agency or his or her designee to the person making the request, setting forth the reasons for the extension and the date on which a determination is expected to be dispatched. No notice shall specify a date that would result in an extension for more than 14 days.
No specific reason was given, and I've yet to receive the documents. At the same time, I was able to get similar information from the Santa Clara County in just a few days.
And it’s not an isolated incident. I recently requested information on the number of prevailing-wage violations the city has issued over the last 10 years. Again, at the last moment, I was sent a notice of extension with no cited reason. I was able to get identical information from the city of Los Angeles in less than a week.
There are many people and names that come to mind as I write this. I have purposefully mentioned none of the city staff as I don’t believe this is an issue of incompetence or laziness. This is the result of a policy decision handed down from a mayor who campaigned on openness and transparency but who evidently has no idea what that means.