FROM THE WEST SACRAMENTO NEWS-LEDGER NEWSPAPER — SEPT 26, 2012 –
By Steve Marschke
Several days before the local school board was set to appoint a new board member to fill a vacancy, the News-Ledger asked the district for a copy of the list of the eight people who applied for the position. The goal was to publish the list and give West Sacramento residents a better chance to give their input on the decision.
A district staffer eventually declined to provide the names, emailing that “The Board doesn’t have the list yet, so therefore, it isn’t public information.”
The newspaper didn’t get the applicants’ names before the meeting.
But the exchange raised a question of policy: does the Washington Unified School District really believe that its information might not be “public information” just because the school board hasn’t seen it yet? California has a fairly powerful Public Records Act that essentially says government documents are “public” unless they fit in certain specified categories of exemption – confidential personnel material or documents involving ongoing negotiations, for example.
The News-Ledger contacted WUSD Superintendent Dayton Gilleland to find out if this “board hasn’t seen it, therefore it isn’t public information” argument accurately reflects public policy. Several telephone calls and email exchanges followed.
The editor asked him:
“I was unable to get an advance copy of the list of candidates for the board appointment. My understanding is that it was withheld because WUSD did not consider this information ‘public’ based on the fact that the board had not seen the information yet. Do you regard that as appropriate and legal?”
After consultation with attorneys, Gilleland responded by email, in part:
“I do feel it was fully appropriate and legal that we would not provide a list, as you requested, when that list did not exist nor had the names of the candidates become ‘public’ prior to receipt by the Board of Education on the day of the interviews. This determination was further affirmed by our legal counsel’s opinion.”
The News-Ledger pointed out that WUSD had in its first email seemed to acknowledge the existence of a list – possibly misleading us – and, had we known there was no list, we could have instantly re-phrased our request and asked for copies of the applicants’ actual applications. And we mentioned that the California Public Records Act includes a requirement that government agencies actively help members of the public to better target their informational requests. We received no response on these points.
Was there any legal justification “within the context of the California Public Records Act” to withhold a school district document based on whether the board had received the same information?
Gilleland didn’t address the Public Records Act. He did cite a portion of the state’s Brown Act, which talks about the need to post agendas of public meetings in advance. This state law says when a person asks for items in an agenda packet, the government agency shall “cause the requested materials to be mailed at the time the agenda is posted, or upon distribution to all, or a majority of all, of the members of the body, whichever occurs first.”
And that’s about where the dialog left off.
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Copyright News-Ledger 2012