MENDOCINO Co., 5/5/23 — Nearly a year after Mendocino County Ord. 4507 was first proposed, we were delighted to hear in the last two minutes of the April 25 supervisors’ meeting that at least two of the county’s five supervisors are ready to reconsider their unlawful public records fees. According to the agenda released Thursday, the supervisors will discuss overturning this ordinance and its exorbitant fees at their meeting on Tuesday, May 9.
Whether the ordinance was intended as a cost-saving measure or to deter accountability we may never know. What the supervisors have managed to accomplish since June 2022 is to delay fulfilling a number of our records requests for nearly a year, and as they have stated, reduce the total number of requests submitted by the public since its passage. They’ve also embarrassed our county on a national stage by earning an award for being “the worst” in government transparency — for good reason.
When we first tried to figure out what this ordinance meant for our newsroom, I asked all our reporters and freelancers to tally their public records requests from the last year — which wasn’t easy. Filing public records requests, whether for police body camera footage or county staff expense receipts, is such a frequent part of our work that in the end we couldn’t get an exact number. It’s an essential part of our organization’s mission — to ask questions, go to meetings, make phone calls, and file records requests on behalf of our readers, so they can fully access and participate in local government.
To keep local government accountable, we also rely on our eagle-eyed and engaged readers to ask important questions, give us tips, or send along information from public records requests they’ve made. The work of government transparency takes all of us, including government employees. We think that charging these kinds of fees, which would expressly limit public information access to those who can afford it, is not only unlawful but also against the spirit of our democracy.
The California Public Records Act (CPRA) is clear on this — but it has taken countless hours of discussion, letters from nearly 30 media and transparency advocacy groups including The Mendocino Voice, and nearly a year’s worth of public meetings — for a tentative majority of the board to reach the same conclusion. In our letter to the supervisors last year, we pointed out the likelihood that “this ordinance will cost more than it saves.” We have already requested information to try and assess just how much this boondoggle has cost the county, but we don’t have high hopes that the county will be forthcoming about those records.
What we do know is that they assessed us for $111,716 in fees for two requests centered on current cannabis regulatory issues. For a small independent news outlet, or anyone, it’s a lot.
We’ve been working since June, 2022 with dedicated groups such as the Willits Environmental Center, First Amendment Coalition, the Society for Professional Journalists and the ACLU to highlight how this ordinance severely limits government transparency and unlawfully restricts the public’s access to the public’s records. Unfortunately, this isn’t just about Mendocino County — it’s about establishing a precedent for transparency in local governments statewide.
We’re asking our readers to let the supervisors know that Ordinance 4507 should be rescinded — remotely or in person during the May 9, 2023 supervisors meeting, we’ve included the contact info below — by written comment at [email protected], by online comment or by voicemail at 707-234-6333. Tell them that they should immediately rescind this ordinance, the fee requests they’ve issued over the last year, and expedite requests that have been in limbo because of unlawful assessments. We also want to thank everyone who has signed on to our letters, spoken out, and sent their support through this process.
Here are several ways to attend the May 9 meeting and submit public comments:
Zoom Link: https://mendocinocounty.zoom.us/j/87433762620
Zoom Phone Number (if joining via telephone): 1 669 900 9128 ; Zoom Webinar ID: 874 3376 2620
– Submit online via the eComment platform at https://mendocino.legistar.com/Calendar.aspx
– Speak in person at any physical meeting location when the Chair calls for Public Comment
– Join the Zoom Webinar and use the “raise hand” feature when the Chair calls for Public Comment
(if joining via telephone: press *9 to raise your hand, and *6 to unmute yourself when called) – Leave a voicemail message, up to 3 minutes in length, by calling 707-234-6333
Individual supervisors can be reached by email or phone using contact information available at the following county web page: https://www.mendocinocounty.org/government/board-of-supervisors/board-members/all-board-members
- Letter: We’re calling for Mendocino County to overturn the unlawful public records ordinance
- Letter from the publisher: Mendocino County wins “worst” for government transparency (opinion)
- Sunshine Week: national award names Mendocino County one of America’s “worst in government transparency”
- Mendocino County to charge fees for public records
- Free press advocates caution Mendocino County on new public records fee ordinance
- Open letter to Mendocino County supervisors: new public records fees will cost more than they save