by JW August, President Emeritus, Californians Aware
Legal tactics increasingly deployed in California are denying journalists and others the prompt access to government information that the California Public Records Act (CPRA) is supposed to provide. And it happens more than you might expect.
Take the case of the San Diego Union-Tribune, embroiled in what is called a reverse-CPRA case. Background: an appellate court back in 2012 ruled that a lawsuit can be filed against a government agency to keep it from releasing what it and the requester believe to be public records.
In the case of the Union Tribune, it made a CPRA request to the Los Angeles-based Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (MWD) attempting to find out who benefited from a $340 million giveaway to encourage installation of artificial turf. This was at the height of the drought and a fair question, one might argue, but Los Angeles city auditors found the expenditure was not cost effective. But LA Water and Power and three other water customers of MWD sued to keep it from releasing the information.
The paper didn’t get the information for months and had to hire an attorney to make it happen. Then for the next four years, those same water agencies have argued that the U-T shouldn’t get its legal fees reimbursed even though they won the case and fee recovery is a powerful enforcement element of the CPRA.
(Some police unions tried the same tactic this year in dozens of cases, suing their own cities to stop the disclosure of police misconduct records that were made public under SB 1421.)
The four water agency customers of MWD lost, but it took attorneys and time to make it happen.
That’s why the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, Californians Aware and 14 media organizations have filed a friends of the court brief supporting the Union-Tribune, to stop this tactic used to delay and add needless cost to the ability of the press to gather information in a timely manner. In a request the Reporters Committee sent to numerous media organizations, it explained, ”We’re trying to overturn the ability of unions, public agencies and other third parties to bring reverse-California Public Records Act cases and tie up our records requests in court for months or even years.”
And as Terry Francke, counsel for CalAware, said, “Just as with the President’s current flurry of lawsuits to block public release of information about his business dealings, reverse CPRA actions are unlikely to win on the merits in the long run, but serve their purpose if they stall disclosure in the short term, because as with justice, disclosure of the truth delayed is too often disclosure of the truth denied.”
The appellate court now has this request.