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Who's Wrongly Keeping Information Secret?
by ROB DAVIS
Voice of San Diego
September 24, 2009
As we reported recently, Bob Watkins, the airport authority chairman, didn't disclose property he owns near the airport on his annual conflict-of-interest reports the authority keeps.
Watkins, who's scheduled to meet today with Mayor Jerry Sanders about that issue and others we've raised, previously served on the board of the County Office of Education. I went to its office today to see what Watkins listed on the disclosure forms he submitted during his tenure.
State law requires public agencies to produce the forms for anyone who wants to see them. During regular office hours. At any time of the day.
While many public documents require a written request to be disclosed, the conflict forms don't. State law says "no conditions whatsoever" can be imposed on members of the public who want to see the documents. The agency can't ask for identification or any information from a requestor.
But Leo Cole, the assistant to county Superintendent Randy Ward, told me to file a written request for the forms when I arrived at the office today. She said the office would follow up as soon as possible. Three people have access to the disclosure forms, Cole said. All were out of the office, she said.
Cole told me that she'd talked to Ward, who was out of the office but had given her those instructions.
I read the relevant section of state law to her and asked her to call the superintendent back and tell him that his instructions violate state law.
So she called Ward, then called me at the front desk, where I was waiting.
File a written request for the forms, she told me again.
Violating the state law can bring fines as high as $5,000 per incident from the state Fair Political Practices Commission, which enforces disclosure laws.
It's the second time the county office has done this. The office required another voiceofsandiego.org reporter to file a legal request for the same documents last year.
I called Roman Porter, the FPPC's executive director, to tell him about the problem.
"The Political Reform Act specifically bars agencies from asking for any identifiable information from requestors or requiring a request to be submitted in writing," Porter told me.
Bob Stern, a former FPPC attorney who wrote the section of the law requiring public agencies to immediately disclose the records to any member of the public, said the county office's refusal to provide the documents was "highly unusual."
"It's totally inappropriate," Stern said. "The FPPC should tell them that they can't do this. Most agencies know the rules -- particularly when you show them."
I've just heard back from the office of education. They're making the forms available. "We fully intend to comply," Jim Esterbrooks, a spokesman, told me.