A San Diego County Superior Court judge has ordered a school district to pay $42,500 to an attorney whose client, a parent of a district pupil, was forced to sue the district for access to public records.
Michael Robertson was declared the prevailing party in a lawsuit he filed to force the Del Mar Union School District to allow him to see emails sent between former District Superintendent James Peabody and former School Board President Comischell Rodriguez. The lawsuit caused the district to produce more than 1,000 pages of records which the district previously claimed did not exist.
"Every citizen has the right to examine their local governments, including school districts, to see how they operate," Robertson said. "But some public agencies don't seem to understand that. They use public money to pay attorneys to help them hide their activities from the people they are supposed to serve. That is exactly what this school district did. They spent public money on attorneys to hide how they are spending our money," Robertson said.
Robertson sought the communications because of his suspicions beginning in 2010 that a school employee union was exerting improper influence and unlawfully using district resources to motivate parents to protest funding cuts proposed by the legislature, according to one observer.
The District claimed that it searched for but could not locate the records Robertson asked to see. "The reason why . . . is because the district didn't carefully look for emails," said Mike Harris, an information technology expert Robertson hired to examine the methods the district used in its search.
"The district searched only part of its computer system," Harris said. "It is the same thing as looking for a letter that is stored somewhere in a desk, looking in only one drawer in that desk, not finding the letter and concluding the letter doesn't exist—even though the letter is in one of the drawers that wasn't searched," Harris said.
Robertson asked the court to order a better, more comprehensive search. Judge Gonzalo Curiel agreed and ordered the district to search its email servers, and not just a few email boxes. When the new search was conducted, Robertson was provided with 1,198 pages of previously undisclosed records.
"They should have done this in the first place," Robertson said. "I shouldn't have had to hire an attorney to get these records. I shouldn't have had to wait two years and it shouldn't cost even one penny of taxpayer money."
The order requires the district to reimburse Robertson for the attorney's fees he incurred to successfully prosecute an action to enforce the California Public Records Act, which requires the losing side to pay the prevailing party's attorney's fees and costs.
"This is an extremely good result in a very important case," said Paul Nicholas Boylan, the attorney representing Robertson and the recipient of the award. Boylan is an attorney based in Davis and an expert in public records/open government law.
"As we move towards a paperless society, more and more of the public's business will be conducted electronically. If citizens cannot gain access to emails sent to and received by public officials and employees, or if these same officials or employees can easily hide records by failing to properly look for them, then government oversight will be impossible. Mr. Robertson's success is a victory for everyone who is either trying to or will try to examine the operation of public agencies," Boylan said.