Voice of OC has filed a complaint with the Orange County grand jury, alleging that the city of Santa Ana violated the California Open Records Act when it refused to release a consultant’s report on the city budget when a reporter requested it.
The city illegally withheld the document for more than two weeks, Voice of OC believes.
Voice of OC asked to see the report on Aug. 31. Jose Gonzalez, a police sergeant who was recently appointed the city’s public information officer, called a Voice of OC reporter later that day and denied the request. During the phone call, Gonzalez said that the report remained in “draft form,” and that it was still being “reviewed and approved by the appropriate channels.”
The city kept the document secret until after city officials had held a news briefing on the city’s budget crisis Sept. 19. The report, done by Management Partners Inc., acknowledged that the city is facing a massive budget deficit, which city offcials have since estimated at $30 million, and outlined steps that must be taken to reduce the deficit.
The cover letter of the report, however, was dated Aug. 24, a week before Voice of OC made its public records request. A Voice of OC reporter confirmed during an interview with Andy Belknap, a regional vice president with Management Partners, that the consultant had submitted its complete report on the date of the cover letter, meaning the report was not in “draft form” when it was requested.
“The draft exemption is available only for documents that are not retained in the ordinary course of business,” said Voice of OC’s open-government consultant Terry Francke.
Gonzalez says he denied the request because others at City Hall told him that the report wasn’t a public record.
“Just because [Management Partners Inc.] submits [the report] on a certain date doesn’t mean it’s a public document,” Gonzalez said. “They had told me it wasn’t ready to be a public document at the time.”
Francke said that is not how the law is written. The city is not allowed to arbitrarily choose when a government record becomes public record, Francke said. The report is a public record upon arrival.
“If [the city] gets the report, and as far as the consultant is concerned is final,” it is public record, he said.
Correction: Due to an editing error, a previous version of this post incorrectly attributed the size of Santa Ana’s budget deficit to the Management Partners report. We regret the error.
— ADAM ELMAHREK