Yolo County’s Problems Responding to Requests For Public Information

American_Democracy_small.jpgThere is a good article this morning in the Woodland Daily Democrat on the problems that the Yolo County Counsel’s Office had with responding to public records requests.

Earlier this year, I had made a request for information from the County Counsel’s office, it took several months and every so often I would send Assistant County Counsel Dan Cederborg an email asking for an update on the status.  He stopped responding, did not return my calls, etc.  After awhile, I finally asked Supervisor Matt Rexroad to intercede, he made some calls and within a few days I got exactly what I was asking for.

Flash forward to April 1, 2010.  I sent a request for information again to Dan Cederborg.  I received a partial response on April 15, but not the entire response.

Government code 6253(c) states, “Each agency, upon a request for a copy of records, shall, within 10 days from receipt of the request, determine whether the request, in whole or in part, seeks copies of disclosable public records in the possession of the agency and shall promptly notify the person making the request of the determination and the reasons therefor.”

It goes on to state, “In unusual circumstances, the time limit prescribed in this section may be extended by written notice by the head of the agency or his or her designee to the person making the request, setting forth the reasons for the extension and the date on which a determination is expected to be dispatched. No notice shall specify a date that would result in an extension for more than 14 days.”

The law actually gives four reasons that constitute “unusual circumstances,” that includes the need to collect the records from other facilities, need to search and examine a voluminous amount of separate and distinct letter, the need for consultation, and the need to compile data or a construct some of computer report. 

Note there is no exemption in time for being busy, overwhelmed or understaffed.  However, with better communication, the average requester might be willing to cooperate.  Unfortunately, when the agency not only fails to respond to requests in a timely matter, but also fails to respond to emails and phone calls requesting updates, it is difficult to garner any sympathy.

In the case of the county, I had already had a request that took four months to fill and so following April 15, I waited three weeks, and on May 7, I sent an email to Mr. Cederborg asking him when I could expect the rest of the response.  But he did not reply.

I waited until May 7, and send another email saying this time that I didn’t understand his lack of response and still got no response.

So on May 20, I sent an email to Supervisor Matt Rexroad.  I followed it up with an appearance on May 25 before the board of Supervisors explaining what happened.  Within four hours of that appearance, I received the documents I have been waiting nearly two months to receive.

That is what precipitated the Woodland Daily Democrat article.  We find out, I am not alone.  According to the article, “The Yolo County Counsel’s Office has become inundated with public records requests in recent months, applicants are frustrated with delayed response times, and for the first time in several years a private lawyer plans to file a motion against the county to recover attorneys fees associated with the process.”

It continues, “Whether a result of insufficient staffing due to budget cuts, or miscommunication and negligence, private citizens are getting the run-around on documents entitled to them under the Public Records Act.”

Furthermore, “Assistant County Counsel Dan Cederborg said the process has been delayed lately due to an influx of inquiries about the budget and the shooting death of Woodland farm worker Luis Gutierrez. There is not one Custodian of Records for the entire county, but the County Counsel’s Office often handles requests because other departments lack the legal background to discern public from private information.”

They tell the story of attorney Mike Jansen who spent months trying to obtain the information needed to file a claim for his client.  It took him six months and three court appearances for Mr. Jansen to receive most but not all of his documents.

“The PRA does not contemplate a six-month delay,” Jansen said. “The PRA cannot allow the government to withhold just because they say this is the law. They are not the law.”

According to the Democrat, Jansen will return to court on the matter July 21 in hopes of collecting $3,000 in attorney fees under Government Code 6259 that states, “The court shall award court costs and reasonable attorney fees to the plaintiff should the plaintiff prevail in litigation filed pursuant to this section.”

The problem as was explained at the outset is that the county is not entitled to withhold documents for longer than 25 for any reason.  However, the penalties for non-compliance are almost no non-existent.  Under the PRA, petitioners are allowed to litigate to force an agency to comply.  If the court rules in their favor, a process that often takes a long time, the agency is compelled to release the document.  As we see with the case of Mr. Jansen, the only penalty is that the plaintiff can file a motion to award court costs and reasonable attorney’s fees. 

But few people are going take the time and expense to do that.  The Vanguard did it once, it took a year and a half to resolve, and in the end, we did not get the document.  Had we gotten the document, it was already long after the issue had initially arisen.

“Court costs are the only recourse a person has if wrongfully denied public documents, but few are reimbursed for their time and effort. It may be a routine practice for lawyers, but as a journalist, filing motions against your sources can make for a strained working relationship, Woodland Record publisher Jeff McCallum said,” the Democrat reports. 

Jeff McCallum runs a site in Woodland that is similar to ours.  “McCallum, who has waited up to 45 days for documents, views the county’s public records process as disorganized. Requests to the city of Woodland have never been met with any delays because there is one person handling all the request and streamlining the process, McCallum said.”

“The county simply needs to put one person in charge of public records,” he said. “Then, the designated person needs to become an expert on the Public Records Act to ensure compliance.”

The Democrat continues, “David Greenwald, editor of the People’s Vanguard of Davis, said because the average person is not an expert on the law and will not seek legal action, “it almost invites a government agency to withhold documents.””

Mr. Cederborg conceded that the request took too long.  “That request shouldn’t have taken as long as it did,” Cederborg conceded, adding that the request came at the same time many others were requesting information about the budget. “We consider records requests part of the business of the county but sometimes you have to prioritize. He got the response but did not get it as soon as he would have liked.”

No Mr. Cederborg has it wrong here, it is not a matter that I did not get the response as soon as I would have liked.  It is a matter that I did not get the response as soon as the law requires.

The Daily Democrat also talks to Jim Ewert, counsel for the California Newspaper Publishers Association.  The media are always attempting to get these kinds of public records and most of the major cases involve the California NPA.  He told the Democrat, agencies don’t want to give out more information than necessary and will often defer to their lawyers. He said they are testing the waters to determine the probability of getting sued for withholding information.”

“That is unfortunately what happens nine times out of 10 — the agency will make that risk calculation of whether they are going to get sued and usually the person walks away with their tail between their legs,” Mr. Ewert said.

“Even if an agency uses legal counsel, that is in no way an excuse for a delayed response time. Not everything is instantly available in document form, but might require discovery that an agency might say is “unduly burdensome,” Ewert said.”

Mr. Ewert encouraged people seeking information to utilize the Public Records Act.  “It may be a long process and to that end, be persistent,” he said. “Don’t take no for an answer and if you’re denied, ask why.”

City of Davis Ranks High in Responsiveness

At one time or another, the Vanguard has made public records requests from over a hundred agencies across the state.  Given the type of work and reporting we do, the PRA is our lifeblood.  A couple of years ago, an organization called CAL-AWARE did an audit and found that most state agencies and local government offices had problems responding to public records requests.

For us, the key is to find the one access point that can get records in a quick and responsive manner.  The biggest advice I would give both public agencies and requesters is to communicate.  Often the records requester has no idea if the request is burdensome.  They may have some specific in mind, but may be willing to work with the agency, if the agency communicates to find out what they need.  That expedites the process and reduces the amount of work.

As critical as I have been about aspects of Davis City Government, the city clerk’s office has been the most accessible and responsive agency I have had to work with to get public records.  They are prompt, if they need an extension they submit it in writing and always fill within the specified time, they will communicate if the request is vague or burdensome.  The only times I have been denied information is when I have requested documents that are either exempt or questionable.  The one time I litigated, it was not the city’ s choice.

Moreover, on an everyday basis, city staff is extremely helpful about getting reports and information back in a timely manner even when the request is not a formal public records act request.

I have not made as many requests of the school district, but have never had a problem getting information from them.  They seem quick, professional and reliable.

The university is a mixed bag.  Generally I have gotten responses in a time fashion from them.  Sometimes I have had to prod them for information.  Often they withhold information that they do not need to do.  If it has to be vetted by their counsel, it delays the request by a large margin.  One time, it took them a year to fill a request and I had to utilize counsel to write a letter to get them to release the information.

But the county has been by far the most difficult to deal with.  It has gotten to the point where if I need information from the county, I usually try to get it directly from a department.  The Sheriff’s Department and Captain Rich Williams is accessible and punctual, even though he vets through the County Counsel’s Office.  The DA’s office on the other hand, simply forwards the request to the County Counsel and I get stuck in the feedback loop so to speak.

As someone attempting to get information in a timely matter, it is a huge problem and I do not know how to address it.  Hopefully my complaint to the Board of Supervisors and the article will clean things up.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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  1. E Roberts Musser

    Start making all your records requests at Public Comment during the Board of Supervisors meetings. Ask specifically for what you want right up at the microphone, state the time requirement it must be delivered to you by law, and see if the practice of withholding/evasion doesn’t stop! I wouldn’t try this until another records request from you goes unanswered, but if it happens again…

    Just a thought…

  2. David M. Greenwald

    I hope it doesn’t have to come to that. I am concerned that Mr. Cederborg’s attitude seems to be I got the information, just not as soon as I would have liked. Yes, I got it after going to the BOS to complaint about not getting it. Moreover, not only was it “not as soon as (I) would have liked, but it not was not as soon as the LAW requires.

  3. Rich Rifkin

    I’ve had problems with the county, too. I have only made a few requests, so maybe it was just those instances for me. What I experienced was this: I placed my request, got no response for 10 days or so. I checked back and was told, “We don’t have that information” or “It will take up too much staff time to put together that information.” Each time, I have just said, “Well, okay then. I don’t want to waste the public’s money” and left it at that.

    What I concluded — based on my small sample of PRR’s with Yolo County — is that they don’t have an efficient record keeping system for some really valuable information.

    One thing I wanted to know, for example, was how often single family residences in Davis turn over. This is an important question because the City of Davis makes an assumption (for budgeting purposes) that the typical house will turn over (and thus be reassessed for property tax purposes) every 7 years. However, the county keeps no records of this sort in any kind of accessible manner to themselves. So they cannot, for example, bring up all R-1 properties in Davis which were first assessed for property tax in say, 1989, and tell me how many times each of those had been sold (and reasssesed) over the last 21 years. They could not do that for 1996 or for 2003 or any other year. So that killed my inquiry.

  4. jake wallace

    Yolo county’s problems far exceed the release of public information.

    Yolo County Board of Supervisors
    625 Court Street
    Woodland, California 95695

    October 13, 2009

    Jacob Tyler Wallace
    1210 N. Cherokee Avenue Apt. 316
    Hollywood, California 90038

    Re: Government Code 27641: Accusation Against California attorney acting as Assistant County Council, Daniel Carl Cederborg State Bar # 124260 for the subversion of GC 27641 filed against Cederborg’s superior county council and acting CAO, Robyn Truitt Drivon & Judge Steve Basha; Drivon’s former boss. Brown Act violation; violated Article 1; Rules Governing Meetings; Sec.2-1.101; Sec 2-1.113; Sec 2-1.208.


    1)ACC Cederborg advised the supervisor’s to meet and address GC 27861 filed September 11, 2009, which was an undisclosed meeting held by local elected officials to avoid public scrutiny by holding secret “workshops” and “study sessions.” That resulted in the county council flipping the GC 27641 into a ‘claim’ against the county now being handled by Yolo Human Resources.
    2)ACC Cederborg told Wallace by phone on October 12, 2009 (530-666-8277) that Yolo had already investigated now Sacramento Probation Chief, Don Meyer, for the subversion, concealment and the production of a falsified law enforcement investigation by a subordinate Teri Hall, days before Yolo county appointed CPO Don Meyer. The facts refute that.
    3)ACC Cederborg told Wallace that Yolo had no liability as Yolo did not know of CPO Don Meyer’ alleged criminal acts before the appointment and that the acts took place in another county anyway. The facts refute that.
    4)ACC Cederborg told Wallace that the allegations against CPO Don Meyer had been lawfully investigated outside of Yolo. The facts refute that.
    5)ACC Cederborg told Wallace that the Yolo board chair, McGowan and CAO, Robyn Truitt Drivon can privately decide on what matters appear on the BOS agenda as received correspondence. The complaint was filed against Robyn Truitt Drivon and the GC 27641 never appeared as official received correspondence as of Oct 13, 2009. The facts refute that. But the GC 27641 was in fact acted upon anyway.
    6)ACC Cederborg told Wallace the GC 27641 included several supervisor’s and was fatal as the board had no quorum to act but ACC Cederborg then stated the GC 27641 had been acted upon. How would the ACC know that before a public hearing? Cited supervisor’s never had the chance to publicly oppose that allegation or disqualify themselves. ACC Cederborg’s acts continue to conceal the allegations against Truitt and Judge Steve Basha.

    Page 2 GC 27641 Filed Against Assistant County Council, Daniel Carl Cederborg
    October 13, 2009

    7)Wallace received a phone call from Yolo Risk Assessment Manager, Hugo Martinez, on Friday, October 2, 2009 (530-666-8425). Mr. Martinez stated that he had no authority to make the call nor the authority to address the GC complaint and was doing so due to the mistake of another county employee. Mr. Martinez participated in an in depth conversation and stated the county had 90-days to respond. Mr. Martinez was a tool used by ACC Cederborg to subvert the public disclosure and public handling of the GC 27641 complaint; where ever that may have led.
    8)Daniel Carl Cederborg, Yolo County Council subordinate addressed allegations against the county council. Cederborg should have recused himself for a conflict of interest and should have allowed the accusations to be cited as official board correspondence, publicly discussed and acted upon per Yolo county’s Article 1; Rules Governing Meetings and the Brown Act. No written response has been received to date though ACC Cederborg stated Human Resources had responded in writing.
    9)ACC Cederborg’s attempt to have the GC 27641 flipped into a claim against the county; counters a civil & penal code false claims act suit(s) CV06-581 filed in the Yolo superior court in 2006, where Yolo and Calaveras official’s (CV 32550) jointly hired the law firm of Angelo, Kilday & Kilduff with public funds to dismantle the suit(s) after the grand jury and an earlier GC 27641 complaint was subverted.

    Jake Wallace

    Benjamin Wagner
    United States Attorney
    501 I Street, Suite 10-100
    Sacramento, CA 95814

    Mr. Joseph P. Russoniello
    United States Attorney
    450 Golden Gate Avenue
    Box 36055
    San Francisco, CA 94102

    Sacramento Regional FBI Office
    4500 Orange Grove
    Sacramento, CA 95841

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