Study Finds Agencies in Violation of Records Act

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While Berkeley may be known for its free speech, a recent statewide audit said it should not be known for its freedom of information.

The audit by the Society of Professional Journalists and the California First Amendment Coalition assessed compliance with the California Public Records Act and found Berkeley's public agencies to be in apparent violation of the law, denying the public information.

The groups, along with students from the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, made requests to city governments, school districts, and police and sheriff's departments across the state. The report, released this month, found that, statewide, 77 percent of legal public records requests were denied.

According to the findings, the Berkeley Police Department, the Berkeley Unified School District and the city of Berkeley all denied phone requests for public records. When the groups then sent written requests to the agencies, they were also denied, but the city responded with partial compliance. The police and school district said the records were not available to the public, according to the audit.

The organizations called the agencies again to give them one last chance to provide public information, but to no avail, the report said.

Police departments were asked for logs of 911 calls because the time, substance and location of each call for

assistance are defined as public information. Schools were asked for records of student expulsions, for which even the name of the student must be given, according to the audit. The auditors asked cities for copies of notices to landlords of health or safety code violations.

These are all requests that have been tested in the courts, said Dan Weikel, a member of both auditing groups.

"We believe these are violations of the act," he said. "When the vast majority of requests are turned down, that's pretty bad."

The captain in charge of records at the Berkeley Police Department was unavailable for comment. Arrieta Chakos, spokesperson for the Berkeley city manager, said she had not heard of the audit and could not comment immediately.

Karen Sarlo, a spokesperson for the school district, said she thought the names of expelled students are not public information and that even she does not have the records.

She said she would give anyone statistics of how many students were expelled, but said she did not receive a request from the groups.

"A lot of these (agencies) don't know the law, but they're not willing to say, 'Why don't you contact the city attorney or the school district attorney," Weikel said. "There may be some arrogance involved. They think you are an inconvenience so, 'Go away.'"

Weikel, a staff writer at the Los Angeles Times, said that even journalists are turned down the majority of times they ask for public records.

"Many times people are told to go to court and sue (the agency), and most members of the general public don't have the money to do that," he said.

The only recourse to a denied request is to sue the agency in superior court. The organizations that did the audit have been pushing for a law that would establish an intermediate process where the state attorney general would review the request and fine the agency $100 a day if the request was valid. The bill was recently vetoed by Gov. Gray Davis.

State Sen. Byron Sher, D-Palo Alto, authored the bill to "put some teeth" in the public records act, said Kip Lipper, Sher's aide. The impetus for the bill was an information request Sher made as a member of the Senate's insurance committee. The California Department of Insurance denied the senator the information, which was requested during the infamous tenure of Chuck Quakenbush, the insurance commissioner who resigned amidst a corruption scandal.

"If it was next to impossible for a state senator to obtain information from a public agency, then it would be beyond impossible for a member of the public," Lipper said.

Weikel said he hopes the recent audit can be used to push for other reforms of the records act. He said that, in addition to compliance problems, the act has many exemptions, such as police officers' disciplinary records.

The governor said in a statement that he has ordered a review of all state agencies' compliance with the records act.


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