Council talks on releasing records

ENCINITAS — City Council said it would review which documents it releases to the public during a regular meeting July 20. The discussion was the result of the city’s defeat in a lawsuit over public records release and the court’s subsequent denial to grant the city’s appeal of the original decision.
Specifically, the city’s electronic communications policy detailing when draft versions of city documents should be made available to the public is at issue.
Judge Timothy Casserly ordered the city to release the draft study of road conditions prepared by Nichols Consulting Engineers May 24. Kevin Cummins, a local resident and frequent critic of City Hall, sued the city after it refused to disclose the public document.
The 4th District California Court of Appeals declined to hear the city’s appeal earlier this month.
As a result, the city is stuck with a legal tab of almost $30,000, according to Councilwoman Kristin Gaspar’s figures.
However, Cummins’ attorney has yet to be paid fees he was awarded as a result of his client’s victory in the case. That amount totals an additional $40,000.
After a two-hour closed session June 3, City Council voted to appeal the ruling despite a firestorm of criticism from residents.
The 4-1 vote, with Councilwoman Teresa Barth dissenting, enraged some citizens, while baffling others.
“I’m still just utterly confused why (the council) would keep fighting the order when the judge so clearly stated the reasons that the document must be released,” said Paul Winters, a Leucadia resident. “It really just underscores how hard-headed the council is about the public meddling into their business.”
The council voted last week not to appeal the case to the state Supreme Court.
Councilwoman Teresa Barth has said that a bright line rule on what the city could disclose to the public and when would only come from the creation of a so-called “sunshine ordinance.”
“Transparency is the foundation of an ethical government,” she said. “Local policies that go beyond the minimum requirements of the Brown Act and the Public Records Act help to strengthen public trust and confidence in their government. That is why I support a Sunshine Ordinance for the city of Encinitas.”
But Mayor James Bond said he was afraid open government laws have created an insurmountable administrative and financial burden on government agencies.
“Government is spending more and more time, more and more money and more and more resources chasing around Freedom of Information requests that can come from anybody,” he said during the meeting.
Bond added that draft versions of documents aren’t always complete or accurate and can cause confusion. The city’s attorney who defended the open records request lawsuit, Glenn Sabine, made a similar argument during court proceedings.
The judge disagreed, saying that allowing the public access to the draft would do no harm.
“Any negative public reaction or confusion from potential, not confirmed, errors in the drafts are speculative and do not clearly outweigh the public interest in disclosure,” the judge wrote in his final ruling.
Gerald Sodomka, a longtime resident and supporter of the lawsuit, said the city needs better open government policies, including a policy requiring council members to save emails sent and received on city accounts.
Councilman Jerome Stocks said that future requests for drafts documents should be granted on a case-by-case basis. He said staff members would have to weigh the benefits versus the harmful effects of releasing the information.


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