Op-ed: Request to Berkeley is abuse of Public Records Act

One of the strongest safeguards of open government is the California Public Records Act, but like any powerful instrument, it can cause great damage when abused.

I was shocked on July 14 when I was informed that Shirley Dean, a former Mayor of Berkeley, has filed a Public Records Act request for hundreds of thousands of city records that will require several weeks of work by many City employees.

Her request – which the City is legally bound to fulfill – is for all records related to appointments for meetings involving the Mayor or any Councilmember for the past five and a half years. She seeks all calendars, memos and meeting notes from every appointment, as well as all emails and correspondence with other parties, “that are relative to appointments, including those seeking, confirming, mentioning and discussing appointments in any way.”

She gives no reason for her request.

The impact is staggering. Each record has to be located, transferred and reviewed. If it contains protected personal information, such as constituent phone numbers and email addresses, that information must be redacted. Ms. Dean’s request applies not only to the Mayor and the eight other Councilmembers but also to all the employees and volunteers in their offices.

Do the math. There are 2,007 days in the period covered by Ms. Dean’s request. If each of the nine people on the Council, including the Mayor, had but one appointment on average a day, that’s 18,063 appointments. But the Mayor and majority of Councilmembers typically have several appointments each day, meaning that the number is closer to 50,000 or 100,000 appointments for the entire period. And it’s not unusual for a single appointment to generate multiple records.

Consider this common case:

  1. Email from citizen requesting appointment
  2. Staff email forwarding request to Councilmember
  3. Councilmember response
  4. Staff response(s) to constituent and setting of appointment
  5. Entry of appointment into the calendar
  6. Notes about appointment appended to calendar entry
  7. Staff email(s) to City employees and others requesting relevant information on the issue to be discussed
  8. Meeting notes
  9. Further communications depending on the results of discussion at the meeting

If 50,000 or 100,000 appointments generate on average a half dozen or dozen records each, the number of records that the City must provide Ms. Dean will approach half a million, if not one million. All of those records must be reviewed, and restricted personal information redacted.

I am flabbergasted at the lack of concern for the well-being of the City in Ms. Dean’s request. Those who have followed Berkeley politics know that Ms. Dean and I were political opponents. I didn’t always agree with her policies, but I believe she made many valuable contributions to the City.

Her latest action, however, goes beyond harassment and seems headed toward sabotage of City operations. The city council and city staff stretch scarce resources every day to try and meet the challenges faced by the people of Berkeley. A diversion of money and human energy of this size will have a serious negative impact on our ability to do so.

I am taking this opportunity to ask her to withdraw her request and submit one that is focused and reasonable. Otherwise, she is doing more than damaging the City she once served. By abusing the Public Records Act, she is also giving dangerous ammunition to those who seek to curb California’s powerful safeguards for open government.

Berkeleyside editors asked Shirley Dean if she cared to respond to Bates’ editorial. She has not chosen to do so.

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Tom Bates is the mayor of Berkeley.