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A Cause of His Own

TIMES STAFF WRITER

James Lissner is a soft-spoken retired business owner who likes to sail, snowboard and fight for your right to copies of police reports.

In recent years he has conducted his own crusade to get police departments up and down the state to reduce fees for copies of reports on traffic accidents, burglaries and the like.

He slowly is getting results, enough so that he was given an award this year by the California First Amendment Coalition, of which he is a member.

Lissner’s campaign may seem a bit odd, but it fits the watchdog part of him that clamps onto something and won’t let go--the part that videotapes public meetings for cable broadcast in his hometown of Hermosa Beach, spends his own money suing agencies for access to public information and fights local liquor licenses.

His supporters describe him as principled and public-spirited.

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“Many people who champion [open] public records do so because they’ve been frustrated in their particular agendas,” said Terry Francke, the First Amendment Coalition’s general counsel. “There are few people who make it their business to keep government open to the public irrespective of the issues. That’s what’s remarkable about Jim.”

His detractors dismiss Lissner as an attention-seeking whiner with too much time on his hands.

“He seems to be the kind of guy you can never please,” said Hermosa Beach Mayor J.R. Reviczky. “There’s nobody else ringing the phone off the hook championing his causes.”

Perhaps such contradictions are appropriate for a guy who wears Hawaiian shirts, took up snowboarding in his 50s and keeps meticulous files on how much it costs to get a traffic accident report in Sacramento or San Diego.

Lissner can’t really explain why he devotes so much time to pursuits that would strike the average person as unbearably tedious.

“I don’t know,” he said with a shrug. “It’s just something some people get into. I guess it’s just on the principle of the thing.”

There is precedent in his family. He said one of his grandfathers was involved in charter reform in Los Angeles in the early 1900s.

Aside from waging the battle for cheaper police reports, Lissner is pursuing a lawsuit against the Customs Service, which he contends has withheld information on a border case involving two local police officers.

He routinely protests the issuance of liquor licenses in Hermosa Beach, arguing that downtown is awash in bars. And he videotapes the town’s school board meetings for broadcast on the local cable channel.

Lissner’s police report campaign began about five years ago when he asked the neighboring Redondo Beach Police Department for a copy of its report on a helicopter crash near his house.

“I wanted to know more because [the helicopter] was headed in my direction,” recalled Lissner, who owned a small specialty auto parts company until the late 1980s and has lived in Hermosa Beach for 25 years.

Redondo Beach police said no problem--just hand over $32 for the document, which Lissner said was one or two pages long.

He balked; the department gave him a copy, and eventually charged him $10 for it.

Instead of forgetting about it, Lissner checked other law enforcement agencies and found that many of them charged far more than he thought the law permitted.

Citing state statutes requiring that fees for public documents be restricted to the “direct costs of duplication,” he wrote to about 40 cities and then, last summer, to another 40.

“Please adjust your charges,” he urged.

Many of the 80 departments ignored him. Some responded with legal arguments justifying their charges. One, Los Angeles, has actually raised its fees since being contacted by Lissner.

But Lissner said that about 30 agencies have cut their charges, sometimes to nothing.

Among the departments that have reduced copy fees are Sacramento, San Francisco, Modesto, Salinas, Paso Robles, Santa Barbara, Newport Beach and a number in the Los Angeles Basin.

“It was our city attorney’s opinion that he was correct,” said Modesto Councilman Mike Serpa, who is chairman of the League of California Cities’ committee on public safety.

Sacramento dropped its fee from $10 a report to a dime a page. Then, after receiving quarters in the mail for two-page reports, the department started issuing copies of less than 50 pages for free.

“We didn’t want to write a check for a nickel [in change], but we couldn’t keep it,” said a records office worker who declined to give her name.

Asked what she thought of the changes, she remarked, “I think it’s wonderful. Ten bucks for a one-page report?”

Ten bucks was cheap compared to some places. Paso Robles was charging $85 for a copy of a traffic accident report if injuries were involved, $45 if there were no injuries.

Lissner was unusually emphatic in his letter to Paso Robles. “When you adopted these fees, what were you thinking?” he demanded.

Paso Robles Police Chief Dennis Cassidy said officials were thinking of how much it costs the department to investigate traffic accidents, especially because the reports are used primarily by insurance companies and in civil cases.

Lissner was not the only one complaining. As a result, Paso Robles recently cut the $85 charge to $30 and the $45 fee to $20.

That’s still too much, said Lissner, who has not yet moved Paso Robles into his “finished” file.


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