While attorneys for Fresno Unified School District cited several legal exemptions for withholding information from The Bee’s recent public records request regarding no-bid contracts, the district will not disclose how many records actually were withheld.
But a bill introduced in the state Legislature in January could, if passed, make that mandatory.
In December, The Bee requested emails exchanged between Fresno Unified and Harris Construction over a five-month span in 2011, in light of a federal investigation of the district’s no-bid contracts with the developer. On Monday, the district provided more than 350 of those emails to The Bee, after delaying their release twice.
Some Fresno Unified school board members said that the emails showed an inappropriate relationship between district and Harris Construction officials, but questions remain about what emails weren’t made public.
“It just boils down to a lack of transparency and accountable leadership. They feel they can do whatever they want and withhold whatever they want,” Fresno Teachers Association President Tish Rice said Friday. “We’re concerned with the appearance of impropriety on the end of the district.”
In a letter to The Bee, Atkinson, Andelson, Loya, Ruud & Romo, the Fresno firm representing the district, said Fresno Unified withheld and redacted certain records due to “one or more” of five listed exemptions from the Public Records Act.
The letter did not specify which exemptions were applied, but Fresno Unified spokesman Miguel Arias said Friday only two were used: one regarding student privacy, and another regarding records pertaining to pending litigation involving the district. The other exemptions listed in the letter are records “for which the public interest served by nondisclosure clearly outweighs the public interest served by disclosure,” a right to privacy regarding personnel and medical matters or “informational privacy,” and the deliberative process privilege – which has been criticized as being a catchall exemption.
Arias would not say how many records were withheld, and attorneys did not return phone calls.
Assembly Bill 1707 would require public agencies to provide specific details when it asserts exemptions to disclosure of public records. The bill, introduced by Assemblyman Eric Linder, R-Corona, would force agencies to list each record that was withheld, give it a title and specify which exemptions apply to each.
“It could be 500 emails that (Fresno Unified) withheld. It’s for this exact reason that the bill has been put forth,” said Nikki Moore, attorney for the California Newspaper Publishers Association, which last week wrote a letter to the Legislature in support of the bill. “Right now, there’s no way for the public to have any knowledge about whether exemptions are properly being asserted or not.”
Attorney Peter Scheer, director of the First Amendment Coalition, said that some of the legal exemptions are vague – including the ones listed by Fresno Unified’s attorneys – and that they are “used and abused all the time.”
“It’s become much too easy to withhold records in California that are not being withheld legitimately. But it’s very, very hard to see that because of the vagueness of the exemptions that are invoked, which leaves the vast majority of requesters just shaking their heads and realizing they’re not going to get what they should get,” he said.