COMMUNITY COMMENTARY: City denies access to infrastructure data

The city of Encinitas continues to deny residents access to important public documents. One recent document cost taxpayers $70,000, and I’ve been trying to get a copy since January.
I want a prosperous future for our hometown. It is the reason I research the details of how our city is managed. For the past several years I’ve been seeking information on the city’s long-term street maintenance plan. Only after city staff was pressured did they admit they didn’t have a current comprehensive assessment of street conditions or an optimized plan to keep the streets from deteriorating. Staff also admitted that they believed our city was underfunding street maintenance by millions of dollars a year. With streets, an ounce of prevention unequivocally averts a pound of cure.
Shortly after their admission, the city hired a contractor to do a streets report. The $100,000 contract was approved in February 2009. The contractor’s report was due by August 2009, in time to be used to develop the city’s road maintenance budget.
The report is now 12 months overdue. The council (minus Teresa Barth) blindly approved the city’s street maintenance budget without the report. City financial records indicate that the consultants were paid months ago. Council candidate Tony Kranz contacted the consultants and was told that the report has been materially complete for many months (prior to budget approval).
Withholding the document allows staff time to massage the findings and delay the release until an opportune time arises. It would not be the first time a materially finished report was kept secret from the public for months or even years. There is good evidence that the citywide traffic study, the Cardiff Specific Plan, the Retiree Health Care Cost Study, the Scripps EIR, and the Hall Park EIR were materially complete long before they were released. In the case of the Traffic Study, the consultant and council discussions would later reveal that the reason for the denial of access to the documents was for personal political gain: the re-election of Mayor Dan Dalager.
A healthy democracy feeds off timely access to relevant facts to facilitate unbiased analysis. Accountability requires open access to public records.
So how does the council majority subvert the system? They stamp the documents they don’t want released “draft.” Then they turn around and say it is against policy to release drafts. They say possible errors must be edited before release. Why not stamp it a draft, release it, then let the public help vet the document? This would be a much more open process and the result would be a better final product.
The public understands the difference between a draft and final report. Council’s fear that the public will freak out if an error is found in a draft is overblown. Isn’t it better to find errors in a draft rather than the final version? A few residents were able to find serious errors throughout the final citywide traffic report in one weekend. Because it was too late for the problems to be fixed, and the problems so serious, the Traffic Commission could not recommended accepting the report. The city wasted $143,000 on the project.
The city is ignoring the state constitution, which guarantees access to public records. Attorneys from Calaware, an open government advocacy organization, informed the city that the pavement report must be released, even if it was a draft. The city refuses to address Calaware’s key points. (Read Calaware’s letters at Mayor Dalager has not responded to e-mail asking for reconciliation of the matter. Only Councilwoman Barth has demonstrated interest in publicly discussing the issue.
Should the city be allowed to keep everything it deems a draft secret? Should the city be allowed to keep consultants’ original work secret? Should the city explain why it doesn’t think it is violating the law, or should the law be a secret too? If the city doesn’t explain, should the public ask a judge to look into the matter?
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Kevin Cummins is vice president of the Encinitas Taxpayers Association.


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