Pictured: The grand opening celebration of the Church of Scientology’s Ventura location on Feb. 22. Photo submitted.
by Kimberly Rivers
City signs off on controversial balloon release
Ventura Mayor Matt LaVere got it wrong when he stated on social media that the city “expressly forbid” the Church of Scientology (COS) from releasing balloons as part of its Ventura building grand opening on Feb. 22.
Antoinette Mann, clerk for the city of Ventura, responding via email to a public records act request from the VCReporter for the COS city business license said, “They do not have a valid business license and were asked twice in 2018 to submit an application for [one].”
Public outcry ensued after the COS sent out press releases and photographs from the grand opening, reporting that 1,000 balloons had been released at their building at 2151 Allesandra Drive, near Seaward Ave., along the 101 freeway.
“It should be illegal to release balloons, especially at this scale,” said Paul Jenkin, Ventura Campaign Coordinator with the Surfrider Foundation. He said many don’t realize the wind direction usually changes at night and would have carried the floating balloons out to sea. Then, as the helium is slowly released, the balloons come down into the ocean.
“Every time I have been out on a boat in the Santa Barbara Channel, we have stopped and picked up balloons floating on the sea surface,” said Jenkin. “Plastic and Mylar can then be mistaken as food (such as jellyfish and other organisms) and is often consumed by marine life.”
On Feb. 24, LaVere, responding to the public outcry over the balloon release, posted a statement on his campaign Facebook page for Ventura County Supervisor (Dist. 1) which stated, “The truth is that the City EXPRESSLY FORBID the Church of Scientology from doing this balloon release, and they ignored us and did it anyway. There will be a serious price to pay for this. The Church of Scientology broke our laws by littering and damaging our natural environment, and even worse, they ignored our demands not to do so. I have instructed our city attorney to review these actions and to hold the Church of Scientology liable to the fullest extent allowed by law.”
In fact, the permit issued by the city did allow a balloon release, although emails between the COS and city staff show a comment that the permit could not be approved because of the balloon release and a state law that prohibits a particular type of balloon.
Steven De Fratus, community partnerships supervisor for Ventura, sent an email on Feb. 3 stating, “I will not be able to approve this request,” and provided a link to a state law that prohibits the release of balloons that conduct electricity.
On Feb. 10, Debbie Cregan for the COS of Santa Barbara and Ventura sent an email to Drake O’Loughlin, a contracts coordinator for the city, and copied to De Fratus, stating, “In doing research, I found that the balloons that are prohibited in California are Mylar balloons, and we do not use those. We plan to use regular non-metallic balloons and I want to make sure that is okay and approved.”
The final permit was signed on Feb. 19 and on the first page noted that a balloon release was to be part of the permitted event. The event took place on Feb. 22.
The COS issued an apology for the balloon release and has had volunteers cleaning up on the beaches since the event.
On March 2, the Ventura City Council unanimously approved an emergency ordinance banning the release of any type of balloon. Manned hot air balloons and releases for government or scientific purposes are exempt.
LaVere did not respond by press deadline to requests for comment.
Ventura fails to comply with public records laws
On Wednesday, Feb. 26, the city of Ventura failed to comply with state public records laws when it did not make a public record immediately available for viewing when requested.
On Feb. 26, the VCReporter made an in-person request in the City Clerk’s office to view the event permit issued by the city to the Church of Scientology (COS) for their grand opening event on Feb. 22, at which numerous balloons were released.
The COS provided the VCReporter with the first page of their event permit which states, “There will be a balloon/confetti release . . .” as part of the event.
“We have 10 days to respond to your request to provide you the records,” said Antoinette Mann, clerk for the city of Ventura, speaking in her office on Feb. 26. She said they had received the written request, submitted by the VCReporter on Feb. 24, and were getting the document from the Parks and Recreation Department. “Once we do have [the document] then you have the right to come in and view them free of charge.”
State law allows a government agency to take up to 10 days to respond to a request for a copy of the records, but if the requester simply asks to view the documents, they must be made available upon request, if feasible.
The delay became a public information issue because of the impending March 3 election and an online statement issued by Matt LaVere, Ventura mayor and a candidate for Ventura County Supervisor, saying the city had prohibited the balloon release, which was followed by a statement from the COS that the organization did have permission.
California Government Code Section 6253 (a) 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.”
Section (d) states “Nothing in this chapter shall be construed to permit an agency to delay or obstruct the inspection or copying of public records.”
When asked if the record could be viewed that day in the office of Ventura Parks and Recreation, Mann said, “You could walk down there right now and see if they’ll give it to you.”
Courtney Deppen, administrative assistant in the Parks and Recreation office, said the person who handles those permits was out of the office and indicated she could not produce the document. When asked if the COS event permit was in the building she said, “I don’t know.” She said as soon as she has the document, “you can have it.” When asked when that would be, she said, “I don’t know.”
“Gov. Code 6253 . . . provides that records are open to inspection at all times during the office hours of the agency,” confirmed Kelly Aviles, vice president of open government compliance with the nonprofit organization Californians Aware (CalAware), based in Carmichael, Calif. Aviles is an attorney who specializes in the California Public Records Act, the Ralph M. Brown Act and the Bagley-Keene Act, and serves as litigation counsel for CalAware. She said there is likely to be an exemption when a “voluminous amount of records” are requested for viewing or the documents have to be reviewed before disclosure. But regarding an event permit she said, “the type of record you describe does not sound like it would fall into either of those categories.”
She also clarified that while an agency is granted up to 10 days to respond for a request for copies of public records, “that doesn’t mean they can take that long if the circumstances don’t warrant it.”
The requested documents were made available to the VCReporter on Thursday, Feb. 27, at 2:49 p.m. following an emailed request from the VCReporter stating the applicable state code.
The VCReporter previously reported on Ventura’s violation of the Brown Act when a September 2019 closed session vote and action by the city council was not properly reported out to the public. The city council remedied that violation in January 2020 by reporting the September vote, following the VCReporter and Ojai Valley News filing complaints with the Ventura County District Attorney’s office.