Deliberate resistance – languishing for as much as a year.
Resistance to the Public Records Act (PRA) may not be official policy for the City of Dixon, but it is the policy by practice. It is logical to presume city officials are hiding the records to prevent exposure of their failings.
Since the city brought in Doug White as City Attorney, with the back-up of his law firm Churchwell White LLP, PRA requests have more and more been met with resistance, refusals, and delays.
Currently requests submitted by Dixon’s Independent Voice (the IV) for city records have languished for months – and up to over a full year.
Their tactics have included ignoring the requests; delaying response for weeks; feigning ignorance of what was requested – such as asking the IV to define the terms “Mayor”, “Councilmembers”, “City Attorney”, “City Clerk” and “City staff.”; demanding a $5,000 deposit to begin a records search; and the City Attorney producing a chart purporting the IV requests had cost the City over $13,000 in legal fees paid to the City Attorney.
The Public Records Act requires local government to provide records during regular business hours for records that are not exempt from disclosure under very limited circumstances. If there is a legitimate concern that any record is exempt, the PRA allows 10 days to determine if and exemption applies.
Dixon officials routinely claim the 10 day period even for the most mundane records – such as billing records; council and commission agendas, minutes and videos; and correspondence to landowners.
The most egregious violation has been for records pertaining to the putative “Movie Studio Project” promoted by Carissa Carpenter, who is currently being prosecuted in Federal court following charges by the FBI, IRS and US Postal Service.
Those requests have been for records on the private devices of various city officials – past and present – which were first requested by former City of Dixon Economic Development Director Michael Gus dating back to 2014.
At the time, White refused claiming information on private devices were not public records. However, In March of 2017 the California Supreme Court ruled unanimously in an identical case from Santa Clara County that the public has a right to access emails, voicemails and texts on private devices or servers about government business of local officials and employees.
The “whole purpose” of the Public Records Act (PRA), the court wrote, “is to ensure transparency in government activities. If public officials could evade the law simply by clicking into a different email account, or communicating through a personal device, sensitive information could routinely evade public scrutiny.”
Using private accounts to evade release and keep communications secret would, in effect, the court wrote, “gut the public’s presumptive right of access” guaranteed by the Public Records Act, which was enacted in 1968 and added to the state constitution by voters in 2004.
Within weeks of that Supreme Court ruling the IV submitted a request for the same records involving Carissa Carpenter. After weeks of delay, City Clerk Leticia Miguel sent a letter denying the request using the identical rationale previously used by White. Miguel’s letter was obviously written by White or one of his firm’s staff.
The IV responded firmly noting the Supreme Court ruling, and that White and other city officials admitted using their private devices to keep secret the progress of the movie studio project. Those records include text messages, emails, phone records, and notes of communications between the officials with each other, with Carpenter, and with landowners – particularly those who felt city officials were pressuring them.
Other matters requested by the IV under the PRA –but still not fulfilled – include invoices from the City Attorney for specific services; for amounts paid to acting City Clerk Holli Churchwell – wife of White’s partner; for charges claimed for dealing with records requests; for charges claimed in White’s chart – and the cost of producing the chart.
Also requested, but still not produced, is a copy of letters sent to landowners in the Northeast Quadrant regarding the “Magic Beans” project – originally so named as to hide its actual purpose. The courts have consistently sanctioned local governments and officials for providing documents to some people while denying them to the media.
The city officials’ demand a deposit to begin search for records is specifically prohibited by the PRA – there can be NO charges for searching for records or allowing them to be viewed. Costs for providing copies must be only the “direct costs” of duplicating them. Dixon City Ordinances set those direct costs at five-cents per page, and five-dollars for CDs of city meeting records. There is NO charge for CDs if the requester provides the CD to be used for copying.
Ignoring state laws requiring disclosures is not new to White – who was fined over $8,000 earlier this year by the state’s Fair Political Practices Commission for failing to file required reports and for violating campaign finance limitations. There also are legal precedence for sanctioning city officials for deliberately violating the PRA.