Despite Mounting Evidence of Collusion with Realtor Lobbyists, City and County Attorneys Withhold Documents and Electronic Communications
Readers will remember that in August, 2017, we filed twin lawsuits in California against the Kern County Board of Supervisors and the Bakersfield City Council. The suits are part of our effort to get to the bottom of questions about how powerful lobbyists killed homeowner access to PACE – which provides upfront financing for energy efficiency, water conservation, renewable energy and seismic improvements that are paid back through property tax assessments.
C&BP filed the suits alleging violations of the Brown Act, the long-standing state open meeting law that guarantees the public’s right to attend and participate in meetings of local legislative bodies. The suits also allege violations of the California Public Records Act.
First Test of California Supreme Court Ruling
These cases will be the first test of City of San Jose v. Superior Court, which found that texts and emails sent and received by public employees and officials on their “personal” electronic devices to conduct public business are public records. C&BP’s First Amendment attorney, Karl Olson, successfully argued this case on behalf of California news media before the California Supreme Court, which ruled in March 2017.
On behalf of C&BP, Mr. Olson recently served discovery requests on Kern County and Bakersfield. He also wrote a detailed response to County Counsel Mark Nations outlining the public records the County has failed to produce in response to our lawful public records requests.
These records include calendars and public records created on personal electronic devices. We have obtained public records indicating that certain elected officials met with the Bakersfield Association of Realtors (B.A.R.) Governmental Affairs Director Kim Schaefer to discuss repealing PACE. However, we have so far been unable to learn how these meetings were organized or exactly what was discussed.
Government Officials Ask for Political Cover
Ms. Schaefer, an influential realtor lobbyist, bragged that she had secured the votes of local elected officials who
“are willing to lead the charge on a moratorium of local PACE financing and commit the necessary votes, but are asking for political cover.” [Emphasis added.]
In addition to the meetings with Ms. Schaefer, we are also seeking records surrounding an important PACE-related Stakeholder Meeting that took place May 10, 2017, at the Kern County administrative office. Obtaining records of all communications between county personnel, including supervisors, about this meeting can help citizens learn the extent to which the fix was in to repeal PACE ahead of formal votes to kill homeowner access to the program.
Although our discovery requests explain this in detail, our letter to Mr. Nations stresses the fact that C&BP’s public records requests were comprehensive and records should have already been produced.
If Kern County had agreed to “cure and correct” its Brown Act violation by holding an open and public meeting on the PACE repeal and produced all of the requested records, the expense of further litigation could have been avoided. Following public records law could help taxpayers understand how much lobbyists influenced the decision to end their access to PACE.
Unfortunately, Mr. Nations and the attorneys hired by the City of Bakersfield have made it clear so far in their responses that they are willing to ignore the increasingly strong evidence of Brown Act and Public Records Act violations. It’s left us no choice, and we now have to move to the discovery phase of litigation.
Checks and Balances Project is committed to using the legal process to help the citizens of Kern County and the City of Bakersfield get all the facts.
As the lawsuits progress, we hope local homeowners and businesses will be able to know what really happened to PACE in their community. The lawsuits will also demonstrate that powerful lobbyists and public officials cannot communicate on personal devices as a way to keep their dealings a secret. The public has a right to know what decisions their elected leaders are making behind closed doors and why.
Scott Peterson is executive director of Checks and Balances Project, an investigative blog that seeks to hold government officials, lobbyists and corporate management accountable to the public. Funding for C&BP comes from sustainable economy philanthropies and donors.
You Might Want to Read: