Local Government

Calif. Cities Attempt to Force Plaintiffs in Records Suits to Pay Legal Fees

Dire consequences for public records access fights

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If you were looking for a way to sabotage America's freedom-of-information laws, you couldn't do much better than a legal strategy being pursued by government entities in two California towns.

The public school district of Willows, in Glenn County, and the town of Sebastopol, near Petaluma, have been sued, in unrelated cases, for access to public records–emails of government employees, primarily. These government defendants have vigorously opposed the suits. That, of course, is their right (although one might question their judgment in opting to litigate, rather than negotiate a compromise settlement, at a time of financial crisis in municipal budgets.)

In both cases, the trial courts sided with the towns, ruling that the requesters–in the Willows suit, a newspaper editor seeking information for news stories; in the Sebastopol suit, a lawyer requesting evidence for his representation of an injured client–were not entitled to more records than they had already received. While these rulings, in my view, are wrong, and should be reversed on appeal, they are not totally beyond the pale.

What happened next, however, is completely indefensible–and a threat to government transparency and accountability.