As Tulare Local Healthcare District/Team HCCA (TLHCD) struggles with issues of transparency, the hospital district’s law firm refused to comply with a request for public information in violation of the California Public Records Act (PRA). TLHCD was the only public entity, out of five contacted by the Valley Voice, not to comply.
TLHCD Board of Director’s website directs that PRA requests be sent to Baker Hostetler LLP, a Los Angeles law firm that represents the board. A partner in the firm, Bruce Greene, handles the requests.
According to Greene, “the records requested are privileged and exempt from disclosure.” The law firm continued, “We do not understand the meaning of ‘warrants.’ Assuming that warrants has its customary meaning (i.e. Merriam-Webster definition), we advise you that no such records exist.”
The Valley Voice sent out PRA’s to five public entities: The County of Tulare, the cities of Hanford and Visalia, Kaweah Delta Hospital and Tulare Regional Medical Center.
The information requested by the PRA were contracts with all law firms doing business for the public entity and all legal fees paid during the last three years. All responded in a positive manner and three of the public entities have already fully complied. Tulare County has a higher volume of legal work and is currently compiling the information.
TRMC/Team HCCA, on the other hand, flatly refused.
The Valley Voice’s PRA was written by a land use lawyer who is intimately familiar with the process and correct language in such a communication.
John Sarsfield, of the law firm Melo and Sarsfield, stated that Government employees are paid by “warrants,” instead of checks, and that it is a term routinely used in government offices and on PRAs.
The California Public Information Act states that even if a PRA is not perfect, “the agency must provide assistance by helping to identify records and information relevant to the request and suggesting ways to overcome any practical basis for denying access. The agency always bears the burden of justifying nondisclosure.”
The PRA states that it is designed to give citizens access to information concerning public boards and local governments.
Records include all communications related to public business regardless of physical form and every person has a right to inspect any public record. There are a few exemptions, but to ensure maximum access, public agencies are to read those exemptions narrowly.
One of the Valley Voice’s goals in requesting the information was to research how fiscally responsible each public entity was with our tax dollars.
A PRA is typically handled by a board secretary or a city clerk. The city clerk in Hanford makes $38.15 an hour and fulfilling or refusing PRAs is paid for with taxpayers’ money. A San Francisco law office partner informed the Valley Voice that a partner in a Los Angeles law firm typically makes $750 an hour.
It is unknown exactly how much Bruce Greene has been charging the taxpayers of Tulare for his services because he refused to comply with the PRA.
According to Robin Mattos, a member of Hanford Environmental Action Committee who has filed many PRAs with several different entities, most of which have been filled, “Usually if you are directed to an official contact person like a city clerk or a state employee certified and educated with the State’s Open Meeting Laws, PRA requests are complied with. Whenever a lawyer is in charge of releasing information to the public, they tend to be less than forthcoming.”
The Valley Voice reached out twice to Stuart Pfeifer from Strick & Co, a Los Angeles PR firm in charge of media inquiries for TRMC/Team HCCA. The paper asked why TRMC/Team HCCA was the only public entity to refuse to comply with the PRA. To date there has been no response.View fullscreen