A Los Angeles County Superior Court judge ruled Friday that the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California must release the names and addresses of recipients of millions of dollars in turf replacement rebates.
The L.A. Department of Water and Power sued MWD in late July to block the release of the data to the San Diego Union-Tribune, a sister newspaper of the Los Angeles Times. Three other agencies — West Basin Municipal Water District, Foothill Municipal Water District and Upper San Gabriel Valley Municipal Water District — later joined the DWP suit.
FOR THE RECORD: A previous version of this article said that L.A. Superior Court Judge James C. Chalfant said the MWD acted illegally by "intentionally delaying" disclosure of public records. Chalfant wrote that a 30-day extension that MWD granted itself was "unlawful," but he also stated there was no independent remedy for failure to timely comply with the San Diego Union-Tribune's records request.
Judge James C. Chalfant, in a 33-page ruling, said the DWP had failed to show that the public interest would be better served by keeping the names and addresses secret than by disclosing them — as required under the California Public Records Act. About 20% of rebate recipients were DWP customers, according to court records.
"The public cannot fully evaluate whether the program was fairly administered without inefficiency or favoritism without disclosure of project addresses and names," Chalfant wrote.
Under the rebate program, the MWD offered grants to individuals and businesses that replaced their turf with drought-tolerant landscaping. The program soared in popularity last year, as officials upped the budget from its typical $20 million in past years to $100 million, then $340 million.
The data had remained private since August when Chalfant issued an order that temporarily prevented the MWD from giving it out. The MWD has already released detailed rebate information for agencies not involved in the suit.
Kelly Aviles, an attorney for the Union-Tribune, said she was "extremely pleased" with Friday's ruling.
"It sends a clear message to public agencies that they cannot use public funds and prevent the public from knowing what they did with those funds," Aviles said.
DWP spokesman Joe Ramallo said late Friday that the agency was "reviewing the judge's decision and will seek further advice from the city attorney and direction from our board on whether to appeal."
Tina Shim, an attorney for the DWP, argued during a hearing Thursday that releasing the data would violate the privacy of recipients who may not have known their information would be made public.
"We're concerned about a public agency's obligation to protect the privacy interests of private customers," Shim said. "These are private individuals. These are not public employees, these are not people who have committed any crimes, these are not people have broken or violated any ordinances."
Chalfant wrote that there was not a "serious privacy invasion" because the same information is already available to the public through other means and because there is no stigma associated with participating in the rebate program.
MWD spokesman Bob Muir said the agency was reviewing the ruling but said it "validated our claim that the information was public information."
Aviles said the MWD should immediately provide the records, but Muir said the agency would wait until the temporary restraining order is lifted.