Superior Court Judge Walter P. Schwarm Tuesday ordered the County of Orange to give Voice of OC emails between Supervisor Todd Spitzer and a former county information officer about Spitzer’s handcuffing an evangelist at a Wahoo’s Fish Taco restaurant.
“… the Respondent (county) has not carried its burden of showing that the public interest in nondisclosure clearly outweighs the public interest in disclosure,” Schwarz wrote in his memorandum of intended decision, which will become final in a few weeks.
Voice of OC Publisher Norberto Santana praised the decision saying “credit goes to Judge Schwarm for upholding the public’s right to know and clearly reinforcing the notion that the public has the right to review all communications between elected officials and the bureaucracy.”
Voice of OC attorney Kelly Aviles said “hopefully in the future the county will take the public interest more seriously when considering whether to release records.”
Spitzer told a Voice of OC reporter the county would release a statement about the judge’s decision Wednesday. Spitzer also said in a text message he wanted to release the opinion piece “but I was advised at the time by (former county Public Information Manager) Jean Pasco not to do so.”
The emails and a draft opinion piece (Op-Ed) about the citizen’s arrest written by Spitzer, but never made public, are expected to be turned over to Voice of OC when the decision is final in the next few weeks. The county tried to keep the emails and Op-Ed confidential claiming the “deliberative process” privilege exempted the documents from the California Public Records Act.
Spitzer handcuffed the evangelist, Jeovany Castellano, at Wahoo’s in Foothill Ranch on April 3, 2015.
Voice of OC sought the emails and Op-Ed through a public records request but was forced to file the law suit when the county refused to make them public. The Board of Supervisors then voted to fight the lawsuit.
The emails are between Spitzer, who said after the incident he felt threatened by the evangelist, and Pasco. The draft opinion piece apparently is Spitzer’s insights into what happened.
In another section of the Voice of OC law suit against the county, the judge ruled staff emails and documents related to a Boys Town contract on an April 14, 2015 agenda could remain confidential as part of the government “deliberative process privilege.”
As part of his ruling, Schwarm wrote disclosing that information “could have the effect of undermining the Board of Supervisors ability to perform its functions by discouraging the flow of information to an elected official necessary to make an informed decision.”
After his arrest of the evangelist, who worked at Boys Town, Spitzer reportedly pulled the Boys Town contract from the agenda, although it later was approved by the supervisors. The evangelist reportedly was let go from his job, but he hasn’t spoken with reporters.
Said Santana, “We will be studying the judge’s decision over the next few weeks and deciding our next course of action.”
Tuesday’s decision was the second time in three years Voice of OC successfully sued and won a case challenging county efforts to keep public records secret.
In February, 2014 Voice of OC won the release of numerous public records in connection with allegations of harassment against county government workers, including documents relating to the investigation into former county Public Works executive Carlos Bustamante, who was charged in 2012 with committing multiple sex crimes against women who worked for him.
Underlying the issues in the Voice of OC suit is California’s 64-year-old Ralph M. Brown Act which set the ground rules for government agencies:
“In enacting this chapter, the Legislature finds and declares that the public commissions, boards and councils and the other public agencies in this State exist to aid in the conduct of the people’s business. It is the intent of the law that their actions be taken openly and that their deliberations be conducted openly. The people of this State do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies which serve them. The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know. The people insist on remaining informed so that they may retain control over the governing bodies they have created.”
You can contact Tracy Wood at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on Twitter: @TracyVOC.