Summerville denial of records disingenuous

By Union Democrat staff June 03, 2011 03:45 am
    The Union Democrat has again been denied public records from a local school district.
    In this case, we have attempted to free the results of an “internal investigation” for the Summerville Union High School District. We’ve asked for its release under the state’s Public Records Act.
    The probe involved the Connections charter academy and its principal, Mike Gibson. Supposedly, it involves grades being changed by computer-hacking students or school administrators, PE requirements possibly being waived, and a bevy of other things — all subject to rumor and innuendo.
   Of course, at this rate, we may never really know the full truth.
       The district has refused to release the investigation, per the advice of its attorney, Byron Smith (yes, the same Byron Smith who has stubbornly refused to release several documents related to an employee’s misconduct at Columbia Elementary School).
    Such internal investigations are routinely released by government agencies, in compliance with the California Public Record Act. Why should this be different?
    A lot is at stake: the reputation of school administrators, the standing of a charter school that once ranked among the nation’s top 100, and the integrity of student academic records on which college admissions were based.
    The Summerville district’s reasoning for withholding the report: Smith argues that, because the report was produced by an attorney hired by the district, specifically to conduct the probe, it is protected by attorney-client privilege.
    Jim Ewert, an attorney at the California Newspaper Publishers Association, said that may be true. But he also noted it’s becoming increasingly common for public agencies to hide important public documents behind such an argument.
    Hire an attorney to do your potentially controversial business and then claim it is shielded from public scrutiny. Who knows where this slippery path leads? Will attorneys next be hired to give pay raises, or write agendas for public meetings?
    Since 1968, one of California’s greatest allies in keeping an eye on government has been the state Public Records Act. Alas, it’s been circumvented by a local school district.
    This should rankle the public, because the act was supposed to solidify a popular if threatened notion that government agencies are beholden to you and me — subject to observation and scrutiny.
    “In enacting this chapter, the Legislature, mindful of the right of individuals to privacy, finds and declares that access to information concerning the conduct of the people’s business is a fundamental and necessary right of every person in this state,” the preamble to the act reads.
    In fact, the act takes that one step further. It actually compels agencies to aid in the release of public records. Agencies must “Provide suggestions for overcoming any practical basis for denying access to the records or information sought,” the act says.
    In short, the act doesn’t ask agencies and their attorneys to conjure up strategies for hiding public records. It instead expects compliance.