750x422As reported in the Los Angeles Times, a judge has ruled that the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (MWD), which has paid out some $340 million to 7,800 Los Angeles area residents, businesses and government agencies as an inducement to their removal of lawn turf on their properties to conserve water, must now reveal the names and addresses of those receiving the “turf rebates,” provided at the rate of $2 to $3.50 per square foot removed.

The decision by Los Angeles Superior Court Judge James C. Chalfant was based on a San Diego Union-Tribune request under the California Public Records Act, overcoming the objections of four MWD constituent water agencies that sought a court order barring MWD' s release of the information to the newspaper. MWD had delayed that release to allow those agencies to file their actions.

The principal objector, the Department of Water and Power of the City of Los Angeles (DWP), like the other three agencies, used customer privacy as the basis for barring disclosure, contending that the public’s interest in that value outweighed any public interest in disclosure.

But judge Chalfant disagreed:

While some issues concerning the program can be assessed based on the current state of information, the public cannot fully evaluate whether the Program was fairly administered without efficiency or favoritism without disclosure of (recipient) addresses and names. Addresses enable the public to verify if the money was spent for Program purposes and names will enable the Union to verify whether preferential treatment or double-dipping occurred for individual participants.

Representing the Union-Tribune as a private client in the case was attorney Kelly Aviles, who also serves as the Vice President for Open Government Compliance of Californians Aware. As the California Newspaper Publishers Association noted in its Legislative Bulletin today,

The Union-Tribune was forced to intervene in the case between the (MWD and DWP) to protect the public's fundamental right of access to the information. But because the action did not adhere to the procedure for challenging an agency's determination pursuant to the CPRA, the newspaper must now seek its attorney's fees under a different standard that is permissive not mandatory, meaning the paper may not recover fees despite protecting the public's right to know.

"The question about the legitimacy of these types of reverse-CPRA cases needs to be addressed by our legislature or the California Supreme Court," Aviles said. "Requesters are getting dragged into lawsuits without the guarantee of the CPRA's protections, and their records requests are being blocked for months by parties who are routinely losing on the merits."