The Santa Maria-Bonita School District is being sued by the Nevada Policy Research Institute (NPRI) for refusing to comply with the California Public Records Act.
The 11-page lawsuit, obtained by the News-Press, was filed Wednesday in Santa Barbara County Superior court. The lawsuit stems from NPRI’s work on itsTransparentCalifornia.com website — which publishes the pay and pension data of more than two million California public employees from nearly 2,500 different government agencies.
The Santa Maria-Bonita District is the only one in the county that has consistently refused to provide the basic name and salary information requested by the institute, which is a clear violation of state law, said Robert Fellner, executive director of Transparent California.
“The California Public Records Act is emphatic in its purpose to make public all records concerning governmental affairs,” he said in a news release. “Santa Maria-Bonita’s refusal to provide an accounting of district employees and their taxpayer-funded salaries is a clear violation of the law.”
The lawsuit names Superintendent Luke Ontiveros and Assistant Superintendent for Business Services Matthew Beecher as defendants. Mr. Beecher was identified as the person making the determination to deny the request, which was not only unlawful but made in bad faith, Mr. Fellner said.
NPRI launched Transparent California in 2014 and has since been working to obtain data from every agency in the state. The website has published information on more than 800 individual school districts, according to the lawsuit.
While the state’s larger agencies have regularly complied with Transparent California’s request, the district is “one of a diminishing number” of smaller agencies that has refused to comply with the annual request, the lawsuit states.
The district has not provided any information to Transparent California since its inception, Mr. Fellner told the News-Press.
On Aug. 14, 2018, a researcher submitted the request for records of documenting the names, wages of employees and related data for the 2016 and 2017 years.
After receiving no response, the researcher sent a follow-up email Aug. 27 asking the district to provide a response to the request. Reminder emails were sent about once a month until the district responded for the first time in a written letter dated Nov. 5, 2018, according to the lawsuit. Mr. Ontiveros wrote he received the request and forwarded it to Mr. Beecher for handling.
“After failing to provide a response in the timely manner required by law, Mr. Beecher finally replied by stringing together numerous boilerplate objections that had absolutely no bearing on the simple pay data requested,” Mr. Fellner said.
In a Nov. 20 letter in response to the public records request, Mr. Beecher wrote they had received the Aug. 27 request and that the district considered the request “overly broad and overly burdensome,” and objected the request.
Further, Mr. Beecher wrote the district objected the request due to attorney-client privilege and violation of employee privacy rights, among other reasons, according to the letter obtained by the News-Press.
“There are no documents in its possession that are non-privileged, non-exempt, and are responsive to your request,” Mr. Beecher wrote.
The lawsuit asks the Court to compel the school district to comply with the California Public Records Act by providing copies of records documenting district employees’ names and salary information. Once received, the information will be published online.
According to Mr. Fellner, Californians may never receive the full transparency promised under state law until the Legislature treats public officials the same as other Californians and imposes a penalty on those who violate the public records act. The district is requited to pay the requester’s legal fees, if the requester prevails in court. However the officials who make the decision on whether or not to comply do not face any penalties, Mr. Fellner told the News-Press.
“This speaks to the way (the district) views the law as a recommendation rather than a remedy,” Mr. Fellner said. “And sadly, it kind of is.”
In a news release, Mr. Fellner said officials like Mr. Beecher can “thumb their nose at the state’s public records law because they face no penalty for their deliberate lawbreaking.
“So while ordinary Californians would face grave consequences if they refused to pay any of the taxes demanded of them, public officials can — in defiance of state law and a constitutional mandate — shroud their affairs from public view, without penalty,” Mr. Fellner said.
“Due to the pending litigation, we are in consultation with our legal counsel and will reserve any additional comments at this time,” Maggie White, public information officer for the district, told the News-Press in an email.