Cypress city officials approved a new electronic communication policy this week after allegations surfaced that one of their council members didn’t turn over all her records as part of a public records request.

Council members voted unanimously at the Monday city council meeting to approve the new policy intended to further residents’ right to access public records and compliance with California’s public records law.

“It’s an effort to streamline the process so that the city may better comply with the Public Records Act,” said City Attorney Fred Galante at the meeting. “It’s aimed at complying with state law, but it imposes additional features to make that more efficient and easy for the city clerk.”

The policy was passed just days after a majority of the city council voted to direct Councilmember Frances Marquez to comply with the California Public Records Act as the city faces a lawsuit for allegedly violating California’s open government meeting law, the Brown Act. 

They are also expected to formally censure Marquez at a city council meeting later this month after she failed to hand over information subject to records requests within the 10-day window.

Marquez, who was elected in 2020, is often the dissenting vote on the dais and was the only member of the council to vote against rejecting a letter demanding Cypress switch to district elections – a vote the council took behind closed doors.

The city is being sued because of the secret vote by Californians Aware, a prominent First Amendment rights group, who says the vote violates California’s Brown Act.

[Read: Cypress Officials Face Lawsuit For Allegedly Violating State’s Open Meeting Law]

The electronic communication policy requires city officials to hand over certain information when requested, including emails and text messages sent using city-owned devices or communication services.

Electronic communication including emails, text messages, social media, blogs and other types of instant messaging — that are used to conduct city business — are subject to the policy. Communication on personal devices and personal accounts may also be subject to public disclosure.

The new policy requires city officials to use government accounts to discuss city business and requires officials to transfer any emails, text or social media messages about city business on personal devices or accounts to city accounts.

The policy also states that communications created, stored, sent or received on a city electronic device like a phone or computer belong to the city.

“City officials shall have no expectations of privacy for correspondence created through City electronic devices or City electronic transmittal systems that relates to City business,” reads the policy.

Officials will also have to sign an affidavit when responding to a public records request, swearing they have gone through their devices and personal accounts to produce the requested records.

Marquez said she wanted the policy to specifically state that only the city clerk and city attorney should view documents stemming from public records requests, but other city officials on the dais argued that the city manager should have the power to assist when needed.

“I think having a base policy is good, and I think in most cases the city clerk can handle the typical request,” Councilmember Anne Hertz-Mallari said at the meeting. 

According to a staff report, the Cypress city clerk’s two-person office typically spends about 10% of it’s time processing public records requests, but this year it has spent 40% of it’s time processing public records requests.

[Read: Cypress Moves to Censure Council Member For Allegedly Failing to Follow Public Records Act]

Some residents criticized Marquez for not turning over all her records and questioned what she had to hide.

Others defended Marquez saying that she is being targeted for routinely going against the council majority.

Marquez also defended herself at the end of the meeting saying her colleagues are bullying her in an effort to discredit her.

“Compliance is critical to me. I ran for office to represent my community, to be transparent. I don’t have to be best friends with my colleagues. We disagree. That’s fine. I respect their decision or differences. I don’t have a problem with them. But I just wanted to be treated with respect,” she said.

At the same time, the city has come under fire for allegedly violating California’s Brown Act, another regulation aimed at preventing government secrecy.

The lawsuit against the city filed by Californians Aware stems from a vote city council members took behind closed doors against switching their election system after allegations that their current system disenfranchises minorities.

City officials immediately faced pushback and questions from residents after they decided 4-1 at a closed session meeting on March 14 to reject a letter from Malibu-based attorney Kevin Shenkman demanding the city switch to by-district elections.

In at-large elections, residents citywide can vote for as many candidates as there are council openings. So if two seats on the council are up for grabs, residents can vote for two candidates.

In by-district elections, residents can only vote for one candidate to represent the area and neighborhood they live in.

Marquez was the only council member to vote against rejecting the letter and has publicly stated other council members are against the switch because they worry it would possibly put them in the same district.

Galante, the city attorney, has disputed Brown Act violation allegations in the closed-door decision to reject Shenkman’s letter and maintain their current at-large election system.

Angelina Hicks is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact her at ahicks@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @angelinahicks13.

Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member with Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at helattar@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.

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