When actions shout a different message than the promises from public officials, it’s time to ask why.
Two mighty institutions in this region – the city of Sacramento and the University of California, Davis – have assured the public and Bee reporters over the last year that they are committed to transparency. Yet it would be charitable to say their responses to our Public Records Act requests have been bumpy at best.
Actions are all that matter. Are officials releasing documents and other information or not? Are they doing it in a timely way, in keeping with the spirit of the records act? With both institutions, the public still doesn’t have necessary access to sometimes basic information.
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Bee reporters have battled for numerous public records from UC Davis and the broader University of California system for the past year, getting what was described as a final response last month that it would keep secret 2,424 pages of documents regarding food research. It took seven months for university officials to essentially say we need to just trust them, because they believe it is in the public interest to keep the documents private.
And it’s been five months since reporters asked UC, under the Public Records Act, to release the cost of the investigation that led to the resignation of former UC Davis Chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi. UC spokeswoman Dianne Klein said the bill still is not complete so they cannot release it.
2,424 pages of documents UC Davis kept secret
In Sacramento, city officials say they bungled their response in the first test of a new ordinance intended to end official secrecy around fatal police shootings.
Bee reporter Anita Chabria in late November filed a PRA request for all video and audio regarding the fatal police shooting of Dazion Flenaugh last April. We expected the new ordinance to give our request additional heft – it states that city officials will release all video and audio tied to such incidents within 30 days unless such transparency would endanger those involved or affect the investigation.
But within a matter of days we discovered some video was not released, and that the city had “closed” our PRA request even though it did not provide all records. Chabria moved to reinstate the request and interim City Manager Howard Chan assured The Bee the city would release the additional video. By the end of the day Friday, we still did not have all the video.
On Wednesday Chan said officials did not intentionally violate the ordinance. He blamed the decision on confusion. And he echoed promises from Mayor Darrell Steinberg two days earlier that the city would improve its response.
“I’m trying to get us a fresh start if you will,” Chan said, by eliminating uncertainty about what exactly the ordinance means when it says “all” video. In Chan’s view, it should be a simple definition, such as all video tied to police response to a 911 call.
We want people to feel they can trust us.
Howard Chan, Sacramento interim city manager
“It makes it clear to the public that it’s not (a case of) we are picking and choosing what gets released and what doesn’t,” he said.
“We want people to feel they can trust us,” he said.
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Chan has work to do to ensure public access of other records as well. When Bee data journalist Phillip Reese filed a PRA Jan. 3 to obtain city violent and property crime statistics released to the FBI, by police district, the city said no. The request was identical to one made in September 2015 that was fulfilled. This time, a city official replied that they previously compiled the data as a courtesy, but the city is not obligated under the Public Records Act to create such a record.
OK, it’s true that the city doesn’t have to create a record for public release. But here’s where it becomes absurd – city officials know exactly where crime is happening, and where it is rising and falling, because they use detailed crime data to decide where they need to use police resources. It matters that Sacramento residents also know where crime happens, by neighborhood, or ZIP code, or police district, or City Council district.
As of now, Reese has made a new request for any such breakdown, or a listing of every crime as classified by the FBI, so that we can do the data analysis ourselves. Once we do, we’ll report a story that tells you where crime is up, where it’s down, and whether you need to be concerned about where you live. We did that story in 2015.
“I still expect to get the data,” Reese told me. “It would shock me (not to). It’s an untenable position.” Friday morning Chan called to say he agrees, and will work to make the data available to the public.
Journalists understand there are boundaries to the documents that will be released in the interest of the public. Our state Public Records Act has enshrined those limits in the law. But the answer to requests for access cannot be a simple “trust us.” It’s not about whether we trust officials on the public payroll. It’s about whether officials protect the public trust.