The Los Angeles Times reported Thursday that it has sued Los Angeles County, accusing it of repeatedly and routinely flouting laws designed to ensure government transparency.
Over the last year alone, county officials have refused to release information about the status of homicide investigations, allegations of sexual misconduct against prosecutors and even mundane information such as email addresses for Sheriff’s Department employees, the lawsuit says.
County officials also ignored a request for copies of two instruction manuals coaching employees on how to respond to such requests, according to the lawsuit. One of the manuals is titled “California Public Records Act `emergency Kit’ for County Counsel.”
The California Public Records Act, like similar laws around the nation, was designed to ensure voters and taxpayers can quickly access the volumes of documents and data generated by public employees every day. With limited exceptions, such laws make information such as city contracts with vendors, local government payrolls and the written correspondences of public officials open to inspection. The idea is to ensure transparency, but there is a constant tension between the public’s right to know and government officials’ desire to avoid embarrassment, or worse, The Times reported.
“It used to be much more common” for news outlets to sue to force compliance with the laws, Peter Scheer, a board member of the First Amendment Coalition, which advocates for open records, told The Times.
Budget constraints, he noted, have left many media companies reluctant to take on the expense of a potentially lengthy court fight, although “the largest organizations will still do it, thank goodness.”
In the suit filed Tuesday, Times attorneys Jeff Glasser and Kelly Aviles accused county officials of issuing “baseless denials” of requests over the years and attempting to charge “exorbitant fees” when the newspaper requested information that could prove embarrassing such as emails from top Sheriff’s Department officials after it was discovered that one had sent multiple messages mocking Muslims, blacks, Latinos and women from a work account at his previous job.
The result is a “pattern and practice” by the county of denying access to records that are legally and routinely open to the public, The Times’ attorneys argued.
In its petition, The Times asked a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge to declare that the records in question are public and to order county officials to release them immediately. The Times also asked the court to require the county to pay the newspaper’s legal expenses.
A spokeswoman for L.A. County District Attorney Jackie Lacey declined to comment on the pending litigation. A spokeswoman for Sheriff Jim McDonnell also did not comment.
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