FAQ (Foreseeably Asked Questions) about
the Public Records Act Compliance
Audit of Community College Districts
Who pays for these audits?
CalAware is an education-focused non-profit (501(c)(3)) organization that is not “for hire.” Therefore, all projects, including these audits, are entirely developed, managed and financed by CalAware funds, with the goal of advancing our mission (supporting and defending open government, an inquiring press, and a citizenry free to exchange facts and opinions). We receive occasional grants for book publishing, but aside from that, our only other income source is donations and membership dues. We are a two person volunteer staff, with a 12 member, volunteer board of directors. Why should the public care about these particular records?In general, the need for unfettered citizen access to most government records is obvious-and recognized from our nation’s founding. As Thomas Jefferson warned, “Every government degenerates when trusted to the rulers alone.” James Madison observed, “A popular government without popular information or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce, or a tragedy, or perhaps both.” As for the information sought in this audit, it answers the following questions-all of particular relevance to government financial crises at all levels:
- What personal financial stake-and thus conflicts of interest-might public officials have in the decisions they make?
- What compensation are these officials earning, in terms of salary and all kinds of other economic perks and benefits?
- What travel, lodging, entertainment and other expenses are these officials putting on their government credit cards-or seeking reimbursement for? Are the things paid for necessary and proper to the official’s duties? Are they lavish or prudently cost-conscious?
What are some of the most remarkable facts revealed by the documents produced by these districts?
- These superintendents’ employment contracts reveal consistently high salaries that promise to increase every year after annual reviews that are conducted behind closed doors.
- In addition to their salaries, the travel and entertainment spending evidenced by their credit card statements and reimbursement requests does not always seem to reflect California government’s economic reality.
- There appears to be an alarming tendency among superintendents who book last-minute travel reservations, paying premium rates for doing so.
How did these districts perform in comparison with other public education institutions? The audit of Community College Districts (CCDs) was part of an overall survey of public records law compliance that also included audits of campuses of the University of California, the California State University, and selected public school districts. Those results will be released in coming weeks. But we’re able to say now that when compared to the UC, CSU, and school districts, the CCDs fared far better. In fact, CCDs performed better than any other group of public agencies in all of CalAware’s repeated compliance audits since 2006. More than one-third of the 36 CCDs responded flawlessly. Another one-quarter completed the audit with only one deduction. In all, the average grade was B-, highest of any audit CalAware has performed. Which districts’ performance stood out in particular, and why? The audit’s downside was that one-sixth of the Districts failed miserably. Three community college districts: San Jose-Evergreen; Shasta-Tehama-Trinity, and San Joaquin Delta, never bothered to respond again after initially acknowledging the request had been received. Another three didn’t seem to care about answering the request as the CPRA requires: West Hills CCD, waited 8 days to claim that the requests for an agenda, minutes, and the superintendent’s credit card statements were “vague and ambiguous” then didn’t respond again within the 30-day audit; State Center CCD, waited 22 days to respond to three emailed requests, but produced no records within the audit’s one-month time period; and Los Angeles CCD initially supplied a few records, then wasn’t heard from again in the month following. What was most impressive about the top performing districts? Twelve Districts (33%) responded promptly and either mailed or e-mailed all the documents requested free of charge. As standout examples, Redwood CCD and Coast CCD both supplied all the documents requested as e-mail attachments within two days of receiving the request. What should the worst performing districts do to improve compliance?
- Excessive Copying Charges – Top priority should be given to bringing fees for copying into compliance with the law. Overall, 39% of the districts illegally charged more than 10 cents per page for the copies of Form 700, the statement of (potentially conflicting) economic interests filed by key decision-making officials. As for other documents, where the law permits the recovery of only the direct cost of duplication, some districts’ charges were extraordinary when compared to those of for-profit businesses like Staples and Office Depot, both of which charge only 10 cents per page when their employees make standard black & white 8½x11″ copies for customers. Twenty-eight percent of the CC Districts claimed their actual cost of duplication was 20 cents per page or more. The most excessive was Contra Costa CCD, which charges not only 25 cents per page for duplication, but an additional $40 per hour for staff time compiling the documents. CalAware was required to pay $80 for the 80 pages we received, which included 1½ hours of staff time – $40 per hour person compiling the responsive records. That translates to an annual clerical salary of approximately $80,000.
- Unjustifiably Delayed Responses – Thirty-one percent (31%) of the districts didn’t give a proper response within 10 days of the request, which is the period within which an agency must either produce the records requested, inform the requester which records will not be requested, and why, or notify the requester that more time will be needed to evaluate the request, given specified practical delays.
- Illegal Screening Queries – The law does not authorize agencies to demand requesters’ identities, affiliations, e.g. “Who are you with?”, or purposes in requesting information. In this audit, 22% of the districts wanted some information about the requester before they would supply copies responsive to the request.
- Effective Training – Mark Twain said, “It’s not what you don’t know that kills you, it’s what you know for sure that ain’t true.” Training an employee to comply with public records requests is probably worse than no training at all if, as happens so frequently (and not at all just among CCDs), the employee confidently misunderstands or misapplies the law.
What can students, faculty members and others do to encourage and/or enforce greater compliance with public records law? First, test the current level of compliance by doing a CalAware-type audit of their own school, asking either for the same kinds of records-but concerning officials other than the chief executive officers-or for other records of particular interest, such as contracts, or both. What might make an interesting follow-up request to submit for even greater clarity? One example might be to compare contracts awarded without bids with the economic interests reported on the Form 700 of those officials who recommended or signed off on the contract. How the agency handles such requests would indicate what areas of improved public records policy or procedure should be demanded. In addition, the answers might show the need for improvement in no-bid contract policy. What is Californians Aware doing to encourage and/or enforce greater compliance with public records law? CalAware is already in court seeking an order to bring the worst copying fee overcharges encountered in the audit (see the “worst performing districts” answer above) into conformity with the law. We expect a favorable result from either a court order or a settlement, either of which will be brought to the attention of other clearly overcharging public agencies. Furthermore, CalAware will be closely considering its other options at its next board meeting in late February. These options may include potential legislation to correct some of the most glaring insufficiencies in both public record and open meeting laws, as demonstrated in our audit. Another option might be pursue further litigation to persuade the most stubborn agencies with the highest public record copy fee charges to establish new, lower fees that reflect the actual cost of duplication.