University of California, Irvine received a failing grade in a recent audit of responsiveness to California Public Records Act requests. (Photo credit: UC Irvine)

Wednesday, March 16, 2011 | Statewide First Amendment watchdog Californians Aware has issued failing grades to two of Orange County’s major universities in an audit of their compliance with the California Public Records Act.

Neither Cal State Fullerton nor UC Irvine adequately responded to requests made under the California Public Records Act for compensation, expense reimbursements, credit card use and outside interests of their top officials, according to the CalAware audit.

The audits of the universities were part of a statewide test of Public Records Act compliance among school systems. In all, seven school agencies were checked in Orange County: Two K-12 school districts — Orange Unified and Santa Ana Unified — also received failing grades.

Three local school districts – Brea Olinda Unified, Fullerton Joint Union High, and Placentia-Yorba Linda Unified School District – received high marks for their compliance with the act.

The school districts were asked for the “most recent settlement agreement entered into by the district to settle a tort claim presented on behalf of a student.”

The law gives agencies a maximum of 10 days from the date of a request for public records to either produce the records or offer a viable explanation of why they need more time to respond.

Officials with public school agencies who failed the audit complained that it was inherently flawed. Some went so far as to characterize it as a gotcha stunt. They also say CalAware imposed an arbitrary 30-day period to produce records and that the request was made near the holidays when most campus offices are closed.

“There’s nothing in the law requiring that requested materials be provided within 30 days,” read a statement from the University of California’s office of the president. The statement goes on to say that the audit “doesn’t reflect the hard work that employees across the UC system do to ensure transparency by responding to more than 3,000 requests every year.”

Californians Aware general counsel and Voice of OC’s open government consultant Terry Francke counters that the audit was extremely lenient — an agency only failed if it didn’t come up with a response (even a response saying more time was needed) within the 10-day time frame established by law.

“Telling us within 10 days that we would have been getting them would have earned them an A plus,” Francke said. “Or even them giving them the greatest slack — they come back to us within 10 days and say we’re not sure this is a public record, even that would have been fine.”

CSU schools generally received high marks for their responsiveness. Almost all CSU schools responded within the 10-day period and fulfilled the requests within 30 days, according to the audit. However, UC schools generally fared worse. Few UC schools were able to fulfill the request within 30 days, according to the audit.

Francke said he is also dubious of claims of a high volume of requests. UC Santa Cruz claimed it had a backlog of 300 requests still pending from the year before, Francke said, but copies of the last 10 requests showed an average rate of about two requests per month.

“Somebody isn’t being quite level with us here,” Francke said. “The ‘oh we’re so busy’ routine rings a little hollow for somebody who has two weeks to get back to you just on a determination on something that’s supposed to be responded to promptly.”

As for the complaint about the audit taking place during the holidays, Francke said email requests were sent on Nov. 29, which, he presumes, is at least two weeks before campus offices shut down for the holidays.

Officials at public school agencies in the county that got an A grade or higher say that it shows they understand the importance of transparency. However, they also point out issues with the audit.

The test was easy for the Fullerton Joint Union High School District because there was no record to produce, said Jennifer Williams, the district’s director of administrative services.

“I kind of got lucky there,” Williams said. Her school district was asked for a tort claim settlement, however, there were no claims against the schools.

Placentia-Yorba Linda Unified School District Superintendent Dennis Smith beamed over his district’s A-plus score. Smith said that the law is very clear about how to handle public records requests, but he also said the request was odd, and the district had to seek the advice of the county counsel’s office to clarify what it was asking for.

“Maybe in fairness to other entities, it wasn’t a common request, and it wasn’t a request we understood right away,” Smith said.

In the case of Orange Unified High School District, which received an “F”, an official with a school district claimed that the request was never received at all.

“I’m not aware of this particular request, that’s all I can say. I don’t have a record of receiving it,” the official said.

Francke said that, for some agencies, it was difficult to locate the correct email addresses on their websites. In those cases, Californians Aware officials simply googled for an email address and went with what they found.

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