by Kimberly Rivers

Today the First Amendment Coalition (FAC) filed legal action against Ventura County for what the nonprofit organization says is a failure to comply with the California Public Records Act (CPRA). 

On Jan. 5, 2021, the Ventura County Reporter submitted a request to Ventura County pursuant to the CPRA for information related to reported outbreaks of the coronavirus at businesses in 2020.

On Jan. 18, 2021 the county responded via email stating, “Please be advised that due to the COVID-19 emergency it has been determined that the public interest is not served by diverting staff and resources away from emergency response to immediately respond to this request.  (Gov. Code, § 6255).” 

The CPRA requires an entity to respond within 10 days to requests received. FAC received the same response to similar requests they filed in late January and early March. 

“This is basically a government agency telling you they have suspended the Public Records act,” said Glen Smith, litigation director with FAC. He explained that last year as the pandemic progressed and continued, “Nothing the governor did, nothing a county health official did, suspended the Public Records Act, that’s still the law. If there’s been a 7.9 earthquake or a town just burned down from a fire, we understand that you’re not going to be able to process a PRA request, but in an emergency that has gone on for months now, a request involving data that should be a their finger tips…it’s just not acceptable that they would completely refuse to even process the request.” 

Smith noted that Section 6255 of the CPRA cited by the county provides an entity a way  “to argue why a particular record shouldn’t be released, not an argument to suspend the Public Records Act.” 

The action filed by the FAC is called a petition for a “writ of mandate” that is asking the court to enforce the CPRA and compel the county to respond in a legally compliant way to the requests. If the court agrees with FAC about the county’s lack of compliance, FAC is entitled to attorney’s fees. 

The remedy FAC is seeking is a release of the requested information. 

The FAC has also filed a second action naming the Ventura County Sheriff’s Department, related to a request for records from 2017, 2018, 2019 and 2020 for the four categories of officer-involved instances that are subject to release: shootings, excessive use of force that causes great bodily injury, sustained finding of dishonesty and sexual assault. The sheriff’s office declined to produce all of the requested documents, citing ongoing investigations. 

Smith said that is sometimes an acceptable response, but that it must be noted why the particular record, if released, would jeopardize the investigation. 

Smith told the VCReporter that after a CPRA request for records was refused by the sheriff’s office, FAC filed the action in Ventura County Superior court on March 30, 2021 and explained that while the sheriff has until the end of the month (April 30) to respond if they wanted to object to the request, Ventura County Counsel has told FAC “that the Sheriff wants to cooperate and release the records that are required to be released by the statute. That hasn’t quite happened yet.” 

The First Amendment Coalition is a non-profit organization based in San Rafael, CA that works to advance free press and free speech rights, ensuring open accountable and transparent government and promoting public participation in civic affairs.

The action filed by the First Amendment Coalition on April 22, 2021 against Ventura County: FAC v Ventura County filed April 22 2021

The action filed on March 30, 2021 against Bill Ayub, Ventura County Sheriff: First Amendement vs. Ayub copy