Venezia: Decision on public record requests is huge

The California Supreme Court's March 2 decision regarding public record requests was a game-changer for the media and residents requesting documents from cities and other public agencies.

Moving forward, text and emails regarding official business sent by public employees and officials — even on their personal devices or accounts — will now be a matter of public record.

As a columnist, I frequently ask for documents when researching a story.

On occasions, what I've received seemed incomplete, causing me to ask if there might be more information found in private email correspondence.

Over my 10 years as a journalist, it wasn't uncommon to see some councilmembers list their personal email addresses on city websites.

Newport and Costa Mesa make available official email addresses and contact numbers, but in the past, these cities haven't always required councilmembers to use them and haven't had official policies regarding their use.

With the Supreme Court ruling, cities must get up to speed.

"The court said that communications sent on personal cell phones and computers must be disclosed to the public, if they "relate in some substantive way to the conduct of the public's business," the Times reported.

Newport City Manager Dave Kiff says since the 2016 election, however, the city attorney has asked that every City Council member use their official city email address when communicating city business.

But without an official policy they can't force compliance.

Both Newport and Costa Mesa officials tell me they've been closely following the court case.

Looking at both cities' websites this week, there are official email addresses listed for all councilmembers.

But the fact remains there's no real way to stop people from communicating via personal email, even though it's been suggested that they shouldn't. Technology has moved faster than city policies.

Costa Mesa City Manager Tom Hatch says currently there are no rules on the books regarding this, but his city will look into updating policies following the court decision.

But what about other public agencies, such as the OC Fair Board?

My husband, Stan Tkaczyk, sits on that board.

Currently, members don't have official email addresses.

In light of the court ruling, CEO Kathy Kramer tells me she is working with the state and legal advisors to address the issue, which will be discussed at the April board meeting.

How big a deal is this whole public-document request issue?

Huge.

Requests for documents are steadily rising. Costa Mesa has a full-time staffer on the task. So far this year, they've had 198 requests compared with 136 this time last year.

In 2016, Mesa had 783 document requests.

What's all this costing taxpayers?

Costa Mesa Public Information Officer Tony Dodero tells me the city doesn't officially track the hours spent on the task, but "the amount of staff time devoted to hunting down these requests is clearly a significant use of city resources and a cost to taxpayers."

Newport Beach, on the other hand, has a handle on what requests are costing them.

Jennifer Nelson, Newport's assistant city clerk, says her office tries to keep track of every document request, "but it's virtually impossible, since not all requests come through the City Clerk's office."

That being said, she estimates staffers spend an average of an hour on each request. Based on the volume the past few months, Nelson estimates city staffers have put in 170 hours, at a cost of about $4,500 per month, or $54,000 annually, filling document requests.

That doesn't include the cost of materials, as some requests are hundreds of pages, though whenever possible they deliver documents electronically.

On top of costs here as well is the Orange County Fair Board, which began detailed tracking in June. .

The board makes public at each meeting what the organization spends on these requests monthly in an effort to bring more transparency to the agency, says Kramer, who gives the reports.

Kramer says her organization has hired one full- and one part-time employee just to take care of public record requests.

Since June, the requests cost the fairgrounds more than $23,000 — an amount calculated on hourly employee pay. (The figures doesn't include benefits or legal costs). -

Talking to both cities and the fair management, requests for documents can range from just a few pages, to hundreds even thousands.

And oddly enough some requesting documents never even show up to pick them up.

BARBARA VENEZIA lives in Newport Beach. She can be reached at bvontv1@gmail.com.

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