OPEN GOVERNMENT -- A Salinas Californian audit of public records compliance at local cities and Monterey County found uneven performance among the former and complete failure at the latter, report Leslie Griffy and Erandi Garcia.

The investigation was conducted as part of Sunshine Week, a national
celebration of open meetings and records laws. The Salinas Californian
sent reporters to five cities and the county administrative building
March 10 to request a staff
phone directory and a
copy of a form that lists gifts received by elected officials.

Responses varied
widely. King City gave the reporter free copies of everything requested
and added an informational booklet about Form 700, which lists the
gifts. But at some other government sites, reporters left empty-handed
after being sent from office to office to request the documents.

Open records laws are
important because they help citizens look over the shoulder of
government. The phone list, for example, could be used by a resident who
wants to alert officials to problems, including graffiti or potholes.
The information about gifts could help a community watchdog look for
conflicts of interest.

"Public records and what happens in public meetings
are really the lifeblood of democracy," said Roger Myers, a First Amendment attorney whose firm, Holme, Roberts and Owen, is general counsel for the
First Amendment Coalition, a group that works to enforce open
government laws.

Without
open access to government information, Myers said, it is impossible for
the public to understand issues well enough to make informed decisions
when voting or petitioning government officials.

The law carves out some exemptions to open records
laws, including personnel records, property negotiations,
attorney-client privileged information and some law enforcement investigations. Courts can also seal records in some cases. But, for the
most part, any record made by a government agency is public.

Despite that, four of
the six governments visited by Californian reporters did not give out
any documents or direction as to where else they could find the
information.

"As
far as I know, there is no centralized training or training manual for
agencies to use to help staff, so you get a wide range of responses to
public records requests," Myers said.

Follow-up interviews with government officials did
indeed find little training on public records issues, even in
communities that did well on the surprise audit.

"We haven't had special training on public records,
but we have talked a lot about making sure we have good public relations
with all of our public," said Erica Sonne, the city clerk at King City.

In Greenfield, staff
pointed the reporter to the city's Web site for the phone numbers and
requested she return for the newest list of gifts, which is due April 1.
In addition, city staff are instructed to forward all requests to the
city clerk's office.

"The front desk people know to refer requests to me.
We are very small, and I happen to be their boss," said City Clerk Ann
Rathbun.

In both
Soledad and Gonzales, officials asked the reporter to write down her
request and promised to get back to her. Soledad called the same day to
clarify the request.

According
to the
general counsel
for the open records advocacy group Californians Aware, the approach was
acceptable — but not perfect.

"If there were any good-faith questions about whether
the numbers should be public, then the city could take up to 10 days to
investigate that question," said General Counsel Terry Francke. But, he
added, "There is no doubt about the character of these numbers being
public. They should be immediately available."

Gonzales City Manager Rene Mendez said staff may have
been confused about the request. He did agree to have the information
available in the future.

"I
will make sure that we have that [phone] list available at the front,"
Mendez said.
The
phone list proved problematic for many agencies, with office staff
saying they weren't sure if the information was public. It is.

"The presumption is
that every piece of paper and electronic record they have is a public
record," Myers said. "One of the serious problems we have seen is that
agencies flip this assumption on its head."

Salinas
and Monterey County officials had difficulties that went beyond
uncertainty as to what is public. Both agencies pointed a reporter to at
least three different offices before telling him that the information
wasn't available.

In
Salinas, one official suggested that the award plaques on the walls
were the "gifts" elected officials received. Salinas City Attorney
Vanessa Vallarta asked if The Californian would redo the surprise audit,
which is similar to secret shopping for public records compliance.

Officials at both
agencies said staff members are trained to deal with information
requests.

Vallarta
said such requests for information are routine. But, she said, the
Californian reporter's request wasn't clear enough for staff to fulfill,
saying that a regular person would request a form by its name. She felt
it would be unfair to use the auditor's experience as an example.

As for Monterey County, spokeswoman Maia Carroll said
the response didn't meet standards for dealing with the public.

"You caught us on an
off day, but we appreciate the opportunity to learn," Carroll said. "It
gives us a chance to reinforce what we already do."