Apparently, only in Mendocino County is the question to copy or not to copy.
Kate Maxwell, publisher of the Mendocino Voice, reported this week on something I thought was resolved way back in the mid-90s when yours truly and others (I believe the UDJ’s KC Meadows was involved also) challenged outrageous Superior Court fees for copies of public records. I’ll return to that history in a moment.
Maxwell wrote, “Last week was ‘Sunshine Week,’ when government transparency organizations, freedom of press advocates, and news outlets around the country highlight the importance of public transparency and access to government records — and this year, Mendocino County made the list of top villains in the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s ‘Foilies Awards’ for our new local public records fee ordinance. Since it was first proposed last June, we’ve advocated at multiple public meetings for Mendocino County to overturn this outrageous ordinance, which requires residents and news outlets to pay exorbitant fees, in advance, for access to records that should be free through a public records request. As part of this effort, we put together a letter from media outlets across the region along with state and national free speech advocacy groups, asking the supervisors to reconsider this unlawful ordinance.”
According to the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), “The Foilies regularly recounts outrageous public records fees that seem clearly aimed at discouraging specific records requests. … This award to officials in Mendocino County, Calif., is based on their creation of a fee system that appears designed to discourage everyone from requesting public records. The ordinance lets officials charge you $20 per hour to look for records if you fail to ‘describe a specifically identifiable record.’ … Mendocino County's ordinance is on shaky legal ground. The California Public Records Act does not give state and local government agencies the authority to assess their own search fees, review fees, or even fees to redact records. The law only allows agencies to charge the public what it costs to make copies of the records they seek.”
Just how preposterous is this ordinance that was conjured up out of whole cloth by the County Counsel’s office and then unanimously approved by the Board of Supervisors? Well, listen to Maxwell’s experience: “Since the ordinance passed, I personally have had responses to my requests with estimated fees for amounts including $66,660, $28,200, and $16,856.22 — the first two for a single records request related to current supervisors discussions on cannabis regulations and CAMP raids. As a small, locally owned outlet, we don’t have the budget for these kinds of fees.”
The Mendocino Voice also reported, “Attorneys for The First Amendment Coalition (FAC) notified the Mendocino County Board of Supervisors that Ord. 4507 is unlawful in advance of its passage, and an open letter urging the board to reconsider was cosigned by almost every media outlet in the region. But on the advice of County Counsel Christian Curtis the board passed the ordinance in a unanimous vote. … ‘It’s one of the votes that I really regret making,”(Supervisor John) Haschak said … Haschak recently found out that officials from other government agencies share the FAC’s legal opinion, and has since had second thoughts. Ord. 4507 went into effect in August, 2022, and a staff report on its implementation was placed on the consent calendar agenda for a regular meeting of the board on Feb. 8 7. Haschak had it “pulled” for further discussion, saying he no longer believes these fees to be on ‘solid legal ground.’ According to Haschak, officials from Orange County informed him that counties are legally authorized to recover direct costs of document reproduction — but not staff time — during a presentation to the California State Association of Counties (CSAC). ‘Charging when we shouldn’t be charging puts us at a risk [of a lawsuit] I think, so I would like to have the board reconsider this ordinance because it could be detrimental to us in the long run,’ Haschak said. His motion died later in the meeting for lack of a second, however.”
I agree with Maxwell, EFF, FAC, and anyone else with half their wits about them, that the County’s ordinance is on shaky legal ground because as I said at the top of this column, I thought this issue was resolved years ago and was settled law.
Here’s my recollection of the issue.
Back in mid-90s, the Superior Courts started charging some ludicrous document copying fee like $3 per page when other county departments and agencies were charging only a nickel or a dime (or nothing at all for just a few pages). I was involved in that legal fight. At the time of that controversy, the Supervisors were John Pinches, Liz Henry, Seiji Sugawara, Charles Peterson, and Frank McMichael. The then-County Counsel, was Peter Klein I believe, and he agreed with our position that only the actual cost related to the photo-copying process could be charged. All five supervisors concurred that the Courts’ copy fees were not in line with the California Public Records Acts.
Astonishingly, the Black Robes’ administrator claimed that what they were charging was the actual cost of the photo reproduction of a document.
McMichael, who at the time was the 2nd District Supervisor from Ukiah, replied, “If that's the case, then we really can't afford to have those copy machines.”
Bringing things back to the present, Haschak’s four colleagues now need to join him in rescinding this on-its-face illegal ordinance, and tell County Counsel Curtis, “We really can’t afford to have this kind of legal advice.”
(Jim Shields is the Mendocino County Observer’s editor and publisher, email@example.com, the long-time district manager of the Laytonville County Water District, and is also chairman of the Laytonville Area Municipal Advisory Council. Listen to his radio program “This and That” every Saturday at 12 noon on KPFN 105.1 FM, also streamed live: http://www.kpfn.org)
The “Law” and its fickle requirements is, too often now, a huge mudslide on the road to sane government actions and policy. Where does Curtis get his strange ideas? We’re in a painful period of history, apparently getting worse. Examples abound.
It’s not lousy legal advice! It’s more like what you do when you don’t want someone to see your “records.” So far, the county is winning. Or in other words, the BOS was suckered.
The question is what are they trying to hide and why.
These people are obviously crooked SOB’s who should be behind bars not running the county…our county!
Well, obviously the County of Mendocino Board of Supervisors have not yet washed their hands of the County Administrative Officer (CAO) model of government, which was to abet and aid the former County CEO carpetbagger.
Seemingly now gifted or looted fungible discretionary County administration tax funds were squandered into sweetheart grant contracts with outsiders, and CEO charted a course which proceeded to implode financial balance tracking and paralyze County tax records and collection.
This what the voters bought when elected most of the current Supervisors who are now focused on their own County retirement pension, one might surmise, after giving a virtual blank check rubber stamp to the CEO to run government.
Audit, audit, well the Supervisors sold their own County down the River, and mostly applauded chief instigator Carmel Angelo all the way back to her home in San Diego.
Remember function follows form, whether it be meeting room building design, or web technical communication function, or pretty pictures in campaign flyers of candidates looking to make money, but current crop found when in office, it was more work than they could sustain to govern.