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Palomar College professor files lawsuit, seeks records related to presidential suite

ESCONDIDO — Palomar College math professor Shannon Lienhart has filed a lawsuit against the Palomar College Community District alleging a violation of the California Public Records Act. 

The records in question pertain to communications about the $1 million presidential suite built on the top floor of the school’s new library for Palomar College President Joi Lin Blake.

Lienhart, chair of the Committee on Political Education for the Palomar Faculty Federation union, filed the lawsuit on Dec. 27, 2018, in San Diego Superior Court.

Dr. Joi Lin Blake

Lienhart’s request for records on July 24, 2018, sought “communications (including electronic communications) and documents regarding the Superintendent/President’s bathroom installation in the new Learning Resource Center. 

“By documents, I mean every document that exists, including, but not limited to: drawings, contracts, estimates, as well as minutes, agendas, and exhibits where Governing Board approved such changes to the original design.”

According to the complaint, Palomar College responded to Lienhart’s first request for records on Aug. 7, 2018, and handed over the responsive records it said it had in its disposal. 

The next day, Lienhart issued a rebuttal, stating that she did not believe the college had provided all the available documents. 

According to Lienhart, none of the records transmitted in the batch included communications, such as emails, but instead centered around architectural design. 

“It seems unlikely that this entire project was planned and constructed without a single internal or external communication being sent,” wrote Lienhart in an Aug. 8 letter to the college. “At the very least, it seems that there should be emails to an architect or a contractor. How did President Joi Blake communicate with facilities personnel that she wanted this remodel or any of her desires regarding the remodel?”

Two days later, Blake emailed Lienhart, saying the college had turned over all documents in its possession in compliance with the Public Records Act.

Lienhart submitted another records request on Oct. 4, 2018, homing in on documents specifically pertaining to the presidential suite. 

Palomar College denied the request on the grounds that all related documents to the suite were submitted to Lienhart back in August.

“There is no further information at this time,” wrote Laura Gropen, director of communications, marketing and public affairs for Palomar College. “Please let me know if you have any questions.” 

Lienhart disagreed and proceeded to file a legal complaint.

“(Palomar College) did not do a thorough search for all public records responsive to plaintiff’s request,” the complaint alleges. “Alternatively and/or additionally, (Palomar College) has not produced all public records responsive to plaintiff’s request, despite informing plaintiff that it had produced all responsive records.”

Gropen told The Coast News that the district does not comment on litigation.

But in a March 4 response to Lienhart’s complaint, attorneys for Palomar called the lawsuit “frivolous” and that the plaintiff is “inexplicably fixated upon the bathroom in the presidential office suite in the Library.”

Palomar also wrote in its response that the Public Records Act was not violated because Lienhart cannot prove that the college has the records in its possession that she says she believes it has. 

“Plaintiffs position that it is ‘unlikely’ that there are no further e-mails than those which were produced cannot and does not constitute a violation of the Public Records Act,” argued Palomar College. “In October 2018, Plaintiff was reminded that all of the information she requested was previously provided to her, and that there was no further information at that time. That Plaintiff wishes it were so does not make it so.”

Lienhart’s attorney Cory Briggs told The Coast News via email he believes that a judge will decide the case by end of year and that more records may be released.

“It’s too soon to know how they communicated (with one another), but I highly doubt that they don’t have something else in writing that should have been turned over,” said Briggs. “The public is entitled to know how the college is spending bond monies and good oversight prevents or corrects waste and abuse. Government officials usually hide lots more than they let the public see, so we need to keep pushing.” 

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