Those seeking to view public records at Tulare Regional Medical Center may have a hard time — unless they send off a request to a lawyer in Los Angeles, some 170 miles away from the hospital.
After a Tulare resident stated they were turned away from receiving records at the hospital, instead given a card to contact a Los Angeles attorney, the Voice sent a reporter to confirm whether or not citizens were being turned away from viewing public records.
The Cost of a Request
Most public agencies in the area — including cities, counties and hospital districts — may direct requests to a single person at their agency, but these agencies do not generally direct requests to outside legal counsel, according to a Voice analysis of local agencies in the area.
In a prior article for the Voice, Catherine Doe highlighted the practice when she wrote that the cities of Hanford and Visalia, the County of Tulare, and the Kaweah Delta Healthcare District all had requests for public records handled by a clerk or other staff member — while the Tulare Local Healthcare District directs requests to Bruce Greene, a lawyer who the district has on contract.
Greene is a Los Angeles-based lawyer working for the firm Baker Hostetler, and also works under contract for HealthCare Conglomerate Associates, the company TLHCD contracted out hospital operations to.
As highlighted in the prior piece “Tulare Regional Medical Center Stonewalls Information Request,” for the sake of example, the city clerk in Hanford who would typically handle such requests make $38.15 per hour. It goes without saying that a real estate-focused partner at a Los Angeles law firm would make much more.
It is unclear how much the District pays Greene’s firm. Per Public Records Act request: the lawyer stonewalled Doe’s request for the contract that would detail how much his firm is paid per request.
The Voice’s reporter was tasked with going to the Tulare Regional Medical Center offices and asking to view, not copy, records.
The distinction between viewing and copying is important: while the California Public Records Act allows agencies time to review requests for copies — partly to ensure reproduction costs can be recouped and ensure any privileged information is redacted — citizens are entitled to view public documents at any time during normal office hours, according to the Public Records Act, which states:.
“Public records are open to inspection at all times during the office hours of the state or local agency and every person has a right to inspect any public record, except as hereafter provided. Any reasonably segregable portion of a record shall be available for inspection by any person requesting the record after deletion of the portions that are exempted by law.”
Our reporter asked to view records that would detail estimates or analyses done to support the $55m price tag on the Measure I bond. The Yes on I campaign had stated that these records exist when, in a Facebook comment on their page, the campaign stated:
“What has been done to date is that the hospital has had two separate nationally reputable companies do an in-depth analysis of the costs of completing the tower and all have confirmed that the new bond will be sufficient to successfully and timely complete the tower.”
Our reporter spoke with an RN who gave them a purpose-made card stamped with details for Bruce Greene from a stack: this RN told our reporter that staff were told to give this card to anyone who wanted to view records on-site.
The next person our reporter interacted with told our reporter to write down their name, phone number, and the exact information they wanted, and that the official responsible for responding to these requests would provide a callback.
No portion of the California Public Records Act requires requests to be made in writing, but our reporter wrote down their information anyway and left for the day.
Having not received a return call within 24 hours, our reporter placed another call to the assistant that handles in-person records requests. The call was returned shortly after: our reporter was told to reach out to Greene for the information.
They Try to Copy
While we attempted to view documents, the citizen whose post piqued the Voice’s curiosity attempted to receive copies.
Chris Northcraft, the citizen whose request spurred this article, related their experience in a post on the “No on I” Facebook page
“We went in person to request the documents. The security guard at the hospital entrance referred us to the other building that has administrative offices. We went upstairs to HR as directed and the receptionist told us we would have to talk to “Claudia”, but she was out to lunch,” Northcraft wrote. “We told them we needed the document that day and a woman came out of an office and told us we’d have to talk to “Claudia”, but she’s out to lunch. She pointed the direction of Claudia’s office when she made that statement. We left and went towards the direction she pointed and found Claudia sitting at her desk. She’s the one that gave us the card to contact Bruce Greene with his name misspelled on the card.”
This practice is publicized on the hospital’s website, which directs interested parties to send all Public Records Act requests in writing, via mail, to Greene.
While the Public Records Act allows up to 10 days to respond to requests for copies, it also states that records should be made promptly available.
“Except with respect to public records exempt from disclosure by express provisions of law, each state or local agency, upon a request for a copy of records that reasonably describes an identifiable record or records, shall make the records promptly available to any person upon payment of fees covering direct costs of duplication, or a statutory fee if applicable. Upon request, an exact copy shall be provided unless impracticable to do so.”
The Voice will continue to seek this information under the Public Records Act.