Leftovers column: Open your records

Here’s this week’s column written by Tania Chatila and I.

Official reports need to be made public
Article Launched: 06/08/2008 10:54:07 PM PDT

Where there’s controversy, there’s usually a report. Problem is, journalists – and the public – usually have to jump through a lot of hoops to get it.

Just this week, staff members in El Monte prepared a report investigating allegations Mayor Ernie Gutierrez allegedly groped his girlfriend and shouted vulgarities while drunk at a city-sponsored event.

It is still undecided whether the report will be discussed in public.

On Thursday, El Monte City Manager Jim Mussenden said he received the report on Tuesday but hadn’t had time to review it. He couldn’t even say how many pages it was.

It was a similar story in Baldwin Park a few weeks back when Baldwin Park Unified School Board member Sergio Corona was arrested in an alleged shirtless, sweaty tirade.

Despite a public records request made the day after the May 22 arrest, city and police officials made it clear getting the report would be tricky because the investigation was “ongoing.” City Attorney Joseph Pannone had the final say on the report’s release, which was eventually faxed to our office on May 27 – heavily redacted.

According to Pannone, “police reports are actually not subject to disclosure.”

Per government code, the only details that must be released are the basics, Pannone said – name of arrestee, bail information, description of suspect and reason for arrest.

Terry Francke, general counsel for Californians Aware, an open-meeting watchdog group,
agreed.

“Anything beyond that is the discretion of the department,” he said.

And it seems it was Baldwin Park Police Department’s discretion to redact – at times – nearly whole pages of the report’s narrative.

But some have questioned why the report was released in the first place. Several law enforcement officials – who wished to speak on anonymity in fear of their jobs – said police reports should never be released before a case goes to court because it’s a liability. They were surprised at the speed with which the report was released.

The release of another report, this one from the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office, was criticized for not being made public quicker.

Family and friends of Monica Thomas-Harris, who authorities say was killed Jan. 5 by her estranged husband in a murder-suicide, have accused District Attorney Steve Cooley of purposely waiting two weeks to release the report on Thomas-Harris’ death.

In that case, Thomas-Harris’ father claims Cooley intentionally sat on the 66-page report – which slams prosecutors’ handling of the case – until after getting re-elected Tuesday.

In Rosemead, it was a months-long battle to access an investigative report looking into accusations that Councilman John Nu ez sexually harassed a finance employee. The council was not given the report, and the city made it clear it had no intention of ever releasing the report publicly. Eventually, the Tribune got access to the document, which revealed employees said Nunez made them feel uncomfortable.

It’s easy to speculate city officials didn’t want to release the report in order to protect Nu ez. But it seems they could have also been trying to protect city employees that were interviewed in the investigation. The investigator was concerned the Tribune was going to release the names of the employees interviewed. We didn’t.

Regardless of the motive, shouldn’t these official reports be released in all instances? Go ahead, redact names, addresses and any other personal information. But at least put it out there – the public deserves it.

jennifer.mclain@sgvn.com

tania.chatila@sgvn.com

(626) 962-8811, Ext. 2477, 2109

  • Honesty Is The Best Policy

    All these city, school board and water disricts that are in trouble have gotten there some how. The attorney, city manager or superintendent as well as the city council, school boards, and staff play a big role in protecting “their own.” They are all given marching orders that come from the top rank and file. Some do these nauty deeds knowingly others just do their job. If you have a municipality that is over run in a 4 to 1 vote or 3 to 2 vote, majority rules. That is where a problem begins. Those that know well will try and have it addressed at an open meeting. Those that want to sweep it under the rug will do just that. All police, city and school board reports, expenses and documentations on any matter are made avaliable to the public under the Freedom of Information Act. (except closed session) That is why Emily Isigaki, City attorney Clark Moseley and City Manager Jim Musenden what the Ernie Gutiereez incident in closed session. Smart on their part stupit on an ethical level. ALL KNOW BETTER! But a cover up none the less.

  • damned if you do

    At a recent Baldwin Park city council meeting, the Chief and the City Council were criticized, in some extremely verbally violent terms, for releasing the Police Report by the notorious Greg Tuttle. There were allegations of political conspiracy for releasing the report. If BP hadn’t released the report, I’m sure this Blog and others would have accused the City of not releasing the report because it was trying to hide something. So, in the political world, you’re damned if you do, and you’re damned if you don’t.