Solana Beach withholding public records due to coronavirus

Solana Beach City Hall
(File photo)

Citing its local emergency declaration due to the novel coronavirus outbreak, the city of Solana Beach is “unable to respond to requests received under the California Public Records Act,” according to an email from the city clerk’s office.

The city will continue fulfilling records requests when the public health orders and local emergency are lifted.

In a followup email, City Clerk Angela Ivey clarified that the city will continue to acknowledge receipt of new records requests within 10 days, which is required by state law, and will continue to let requesters know if any records they seek are exempt from disclosure.

In response to emailed questions about the legality of withholding public records, and how long that policy will be in effect if the public health crisis continues indefinitely, Ivey referred to a document posted on the city’s website.

“In light of the ongoing emergencies, the public interest served by not making requested records public clearly outweighs the public interest served by disclosure of the records as all available City resources and time is being dedicated to essential City functions and response to the COVID19,” it reads in part.

No other cities in San Diego County have placed a blanket moratorium on fulfilling public records requests, but many are saying that there could be delays and other limitations. All city halls are facing restrictions in on-site staffing, with many employees now working from home to comply with shelter-in-place and social distancing orders.

Michael Dalla, city clerk of National City, said some requests could be “too complex to process given a department’s staffing levels.” Possible examples he mentioned were large volumes of emails and interoffice memos on a given subject, since employees may not be able to thoroughly search for them from their homes. Simpler requests asking for a city contract or recent meeting minutes, for example, will continue to be processed, he said.

For the time being, public records cannot be viewed in person in cities including Encinitas, Del Mar and Vista, although most records are available digitally. The city of La Mesa is allowing appointments to view records at City Hall, if necessary.

The Los Angeles Times reported that there are some local governments throughout the state that have stopped processing records requests, but most are still working to complete them.

Adam Marshall, an attorney with Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, said there’s been a wide range in how public agencies nationwide are adjusting their public records policies. At the extreme end, he said, the FBI has stopped complying electronically with the federal Freedom of Information Act, and will only accept requests through standard mail.

“There’s a massive public interest in being able to access government records at this time, particularly with respect to records about the pandemic and how government agencies are responding to it,” he added.

A local agency, including a city council or school board, is subject to the public records law in its state. Asked if a local emergency declaration provides a legal basis for a city to supersede its state public records law, Marshall said, “I am aware of no such basis.”

Throughout the country, public officials have made significant adjustments to comply with open meetings laws while adhering to social distancing and shelter-in-place guidelines. In some places, city council members are staying home and using video-conferencing software to participate in meetings, with the public viewing and taking part from their homes. When the five Solana Beach council members approved the local emergency declaration, three of them participated by phone.

Marshall said there should be a similar level of ingenuity for responding to public records requests to avoid lengthy delays and nonresponses.

“Agencies should be giving employees working from home the tools and resources to continue to process records requests,” he said, “and they should continue to do so to the maximum extent possible.”