Our View: Delays in releasing public records shameful (February 7, 2016)

Local, state and national government officials like to talk about transparency, both the importance of it and their agencies’ track records of actually being transparent.

We are heartened that so many of our leaders acknowledge the importance of being transparent when conducting the public’s business. Unfortunately, we find far too many instances where what they say and what they do fail to match.

Even more unfortunately, we find some local agencies’ response to simple California Public Records Act requests to be dismal at best.

Take the city of Adelanto, for example. In July Staff Writer Shea Johnson submitted a Public Records Act request to the city for emails exchanged between Mayor Rich Kerr and then City Manager Tom Thornton between March 1 and July 14 of 2015. Johnson made his request to try to see if he could verify through the emails’ contents whether residents were correct in alleging that Kerr and perhaps other Council members had violated the city’s charter.

Six months later, Johnson still has not received a single email that he requested. He is not alone, either. One Adelanto resident who submitted a similar Public Records Act request has been waiting eight months to receive the records he sought.

Johnson has received more than a dozen notices from the city requesting two-week extensions. At first Adelanto blamed the delay in producing the public records on staff shortages in its IT Department. But of late the city has blamed the ongoing delays on the time and effort it has taken to pull and review the emails. It says Adelanto’s former city attorney, Todd Litfin, is involved in reviewing the emails.

We don’t know how many emails are being reviewed, but we would doubt the number is in the thousands. How many times a week does a city manager need to email a mayor, anyway? We would be surprised if there are more than a couple hundred emails to be reviewed.

One would think Litfin already has reviewed many of the emails and could simply release them to our reporter immediately. That’s what Peter Scheer, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition, suggests.

The California Public Records Act allows for extensions in unusual circumstances, but we’re skeptical that this request really falls into that category.

Remember, these emails could shed light on possible violations of Adelanto’s city charter. Every Adelanto resident should be interested in that.

We’ve heard of other agencies that have played the similar games with Public Records Act requests.

We think such delays violate the spirit of the law, if not the law itself. Residents and members of the media should not have to file lawsuits to force agencies to provide records that any member of the public has a right to see in a timely manner.