FROM THE WEST SACRAMENTO NEWS-LEDGER — SEPT 26, 2012 –
We were disappointed to find that the superintendent of Washington Unified School District, and apparently the district’s lawyers, when offered a chance to walk away from an untenable position, chose instead to dig in and play defense.
The issue – as you may have seen in our separate news article – was a simple request by the News-Ledger for some documents. We wanted to publish the names of the people who were applying to be appointed as the newest school board member.
The district said “no,” initially saying that the list of names wasn’t “public information” because the board hadn’t seen it yet. Later, they said added the reason that there wasn’t, technically, a printed list.
Let’s take the second reason first: yes, WUSD is correct that they don’t have to provide documents to the public if the documents don’t exist. The problem – carefully explained to Dr. Gilleland – is that WUSD send us an email that seemed to acknowledge that there was a list. The email from the district was misleading. Had WUSD told us that the names of the applicants hadn’t been put onto one document, we could have and would have instantly rephrased our request, and asked the district to fax us copies of the applications themselves.
And, you know what? The California Public Records act actually requires government agencies to help members of the public identify the records they need – not to hinder them.
Now, our request for this information was informal and on a short time frame. What happened, happened. What interests us more is the district’s policy: does it truly believe that it can withhold a document from the public for the simple reason that “the board hasn’t seen it?”
In a word, yes. And that’s wrong.
Most documents in the hands of your local government agencies are public, period. There are only narrow exceptions. Anyone running a school district or providing its legal advice simply ought to know this.
Imagine WUSD is right, and imagine they have on file some kind of document they don’t want to go public. Let’s say it’s a contractor’s report saying the roof is about to fall in on one of the campuses, or that somebody embezzled a bunch of money. Under the district’s theory, all they have to do to legally justify keeping such information secret is not give a copy to the school board. They could still brief the board, but as long as they don’t provide the board with a copy, “it’s not public information.”
Public information is public information. The board is just five guys and gals who do the public’s work. It’s that simple.
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Copyright News-Ledger 2012