Info denied by governor
California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s office has denied access to communications about the vacated Nevada County District 3 supervisor position, claiming an exemption in the Freedom of Information Act.
The job has been open since June 2, when Drew Bedwell resigned due to illness. The governor is responsible for appointing an interim replacement but is not required to do so. Voters will choose a candidate in the Nov. 2 general election regardless of whether there is an appointment.
Responding to a Freedom of Information request from The Union, the governor’s deputy legal affairs secretary, David Verhey, wrote in a letter dated June 22:
“We have determined that the materials are exempt from disclosure under the Public Records Act because letters and application forms received by the governor’s office from applicants for appointment to a vacant supervisor position constitute ‘correspondence of and to the governor or employees of the governor’s office.'”
In simpler terms, the public’s right to know is trumped by the public’s right to feel free to exchange information with the governor.
The Union had hoped to learn who was lobbying the governor about the appointment and which persons were being endorsed.
Nevada County Democratic Central Committee Chairwoman Mary Longmore said of the response by Verhey, “If they already had a code, then there is nothing we can do about that. But if they are hiding behind that, I want to know why. I don’t care if my letter endorsing Bruce Conklin is made public.”
In addition to Conklin, a former supervisor who was defeated by Bedwell, others reportedly recommended for appointment include county planning commissioner John Spencer and Grass Valley City Council member Linda Stevens.
The exemption for the governor is not enjoyed by city and county governments, said Jim Ewert, an attorney for the California Newspaper Publishers Association. For example, in the recent Board of Supervisors appointment of an interim clerk-recorder, Nevada County was required to release all job application materials to the public.
“There is very little the requester can do, because this broad court exemption really has no floor,” said Ewert. The governor is excused from court action because of the law, which means that there is no court remedy.
“I think anything that pertains to the way someone’s job is done, we need to know about it,” Longmore said, including who influences potential appointees in the community, and who might be giving them endorsements.
Tony Gilchrease, chairman of the Nevada County Republican Central Committee, said he does not care if the information is released. “I don’t really have an opinion on that. If they want to release something, that is up to them. If they don’t, that is up to them, too.”
In 1998, Plumas County had an almost identical situation. A Board of Supervisors position was vacant and former Gov. Pete Wilson was responsible for making an appointment.
The Feather River Bulletin in Quincy requested that Wilson make available the application materials for the seven individuals seeking the appointment. The newspaper based its request on the premise that they were seeking the same information required to be made public in a general election for the same position.
That request was denied. Ewert said the California First Amendment Coalition then sued Wilson and eventually lost because a precedent of “deliberate process” had been set in The Times Mirror vs. Superior Court, a case in 1991.
Opponents of the loophole have placed on the November ballot a constitutional amendment that, if passed, may ease restrictions on the release of information at the state level.
“This measure would provide that the people have the right of access to information concerning the conduct of people’s business,” said Ewert of the so-called Sunshine Amendment. “It would provide that the meetings of public bodies and writings of public officials and agencies shall be open to public scrutiny.”
He said freedom-of-information advocates are “hoping it would result in a much more open and accountable government.”
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