Update: The Judge ruled against the Foundation this past week; however, the Foundation’s efforts to obtain public records are not yet over.
The whole point of classifying documents as “public” is to make sure they’re accessible to anyone who wants them without unreasonable charges or delays. As taxpayers, we’re entitled to see how our hard-earned money is spent.
Laws exist in all 50 states to safeguard these principles, but they’re only as good as the commitment to enforcing them.
Not coincidentally, that commitment is practically nonexistent in most of the states where the Freedom Foundation does business.
Under California’s Public Records Act (CPRA), public agencies must honor every document request unless there is a specific exemption in state law for the information being sought. And the burden of proof is on the agency to justify any refusal to comply.
However, throughout the past 14 months, the California Department of Human Resources (CalHR) has repeatedly met the Freedom Foundation’s requests for public records with obstruction, delays and legally unsound excuses.
The ongoing lawsuit filed in Sacramento Superior Court accuses CalHR, and the state of California, of systematically refusing to hand over publicly disclosable information about government workers because it knows the group making the request performs vigorous outreach to inform employees about their rights to opt out of union membership, dues and fees.
The Freedom Foundation began requesting aggregate information regarding state employees from CalHR in January 2020. The information was needed for policy research involving funding priorities within the state to better understand the potential needs of the specific employees, as well as to inform them of their First Amendment rights regarding compelled speech.
CalHR denied the request, as well as subsequent requests, based on claims that the records were part of the collective bargaining process, and therefore exempt from disclosure. They also claimed that, while they had access to records, they did not “own” them and, consequently, they were unable to turn them over.
However, none of the factual data requested is outside our usual realm of public information requested and received from similar agencies throughout the country. Aggregate information and individualized demographic information about union members has no potential to reveal any analysis, thought process, or strategy on the part of the agency, so as to implicate its “deliberative processes” or potentially affect its position in collective bargaining with relevant union entities.
And as per the CPRA, CalHR is obligated to produce government records prepared, owned, used or retained while conducting the business of government.
Further, Freedom Foundation attorneys offered to accept redacted data, yet CalHR has declined to comply with any part of the request, insisting on wholesale nondisclosure rather than redaction. CalHR bears the burden to redact the necessary privileged information and then provide the non-privileged remainder rather than withholding responsive documents in their entirety.
To date, CalHR has not provided a valid exemption for failing to disclose the requested records and continues, without lawful justification, to withhold records that indisputably are subject to timely production under the CPRA. CalHR’s denials, delays, and refusals violate the intent and spirit of California’s public records law.
It costs the agency nothing to waste the California taxpayers’ money flouting clearly worded laws. Unlike individuals, who lack the resources and the will to fight the unions, the Freedom Foundation doesn’t give up. We won’t be dissuaded or deterred from our mission of informing public employees of their right to opt out of union membership and dues.
While it shouldn’t take a lawsuit to obtain public records, we look forward to our day in court with CalHR being forced to uphold their statutory obligations of transparency in public records.