Suits Triggered by Claim of Influential Realtor Lobbyist That She Had Secured Support to Kill PACE Program in Exchange for “Political Cover”
First Test of CA Supreme Court Ruling on Official Business Conducted on Personal Cell Phones
BAKERSFIELD, CALIFORNIA, August 10, 2017 — Checks and Balances Project (C&BP), a national investigative watchdog blog, today filed a pair of lawsuits against Bakersfield-area politicians to get to the bottom of their dealings with Realtor lobbyists to kill a popular home improvement financing program.
On July 11, 2017, the Kern County Board of Supervisors voted to shut down local residents’ right to use the Property Assessed Clean Energy (“PACE”) program to finance energy efficiency improvements to their homes. The Bakersfield City Council did the same eight days later.
The C&BP lawsuits follow the revelation that 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.”
C&BP’s First Amendment attorney, Karl Olson, has called the admission a “smoking gun.”
C&BP has also obtained public records suggesting Bakersfield City Council members and staff had substantial contact with lobbyists trying to kill the PACE program.
The votes by the County Supervisors and the City Council were the culmination of what are categorized under state law as “serial meetings” between opponents of the PACE program and elected officials, as well as among the elected officials themselves, prior to the formal votes.
C&BP filed the suit alleging potential violations of the Brown Act, the long-standing California law that guarantees the public’s right to attend and participate in meetings of local legislative bodies.
“An influential lobbyist bragged that public officials promised to kill a popular home improvement financing program in exchange for political cover,” said C&BP Executive Director Scott Peterson. “If that’s the case, they broke state law. It demands an investigation into all communications. The public has a right to know.”
Both lawsuits – one against the Bakersfield City Council, another against the Kern County Board of Supervisors – seek to determine if public meeting laws were broken, as well as to enforce the public’s right to records of politicians’ dealmaking with Realtor lobbyists (the California Public Records Act).
“Our efforts to get the city and county to account for their dealings with the lobbyists have gotten a hide-the-ball response,” said C&BP Senior Fellow Evlondo Cooper. “It’s led us to suspect that a lot of the public’s business was done on politicians’ personal cell phones.”
C&BP attorney Olson successfully represented news media in the 2017 California Supreme Court decision that determined that elected officials’ cell phones – public or personal – used to conduct public business were open to public records law. The Bakersfield-area suits are believed to be the first test of that decision.
(Update: Our lawsuits have now been assigned case numbers. Checks and Balances Project vs. City of Bakersfield is BCV 17-101859. Checks and Balances Project vs. County of Kern is BCV 17-101858.)
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About Checks and Balances Project
Checks and Balances Project holds lobbyists and others who block the growth of a sustainable economy accountable to the public. Through hundreds of stories and dozens of diverse investigations since 2009, we have achieved real results. Funding for C&BP comes from sustainable economy philanthropies and donors. To learn more, visit us at https://checksandbalancesproject.org/.
About Karl Olson
Attorney Karl Olson of Cannata, O’Toole, Fickes and Almazan in San Francisco has successfully prosecuted numerous battles for access to public records under the California Public Records Act, including successful lawsuits decided by the California Supreme Court involving access to public employee salaries, and access to emails sent by government employees on their “private” electronic devices.
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