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A town goes silent 

The possibility that the public’s right to information is being undermined by secrecy in Atascadero government becomes more evident every day. Some city staff have seemingly broken the law by not responding to information requests by members of the public and are obstructing the public’s right to view sensitive public documents.

“The city is responsible to comply to the law by responding to requests immediately in most cases,� said Tom Newton, California Newspaper Publishers Association attorney who specializes in media law.

According to California code 6250-6268, when a citizen requests a public record—such as campaign contributions or minutes from council meetings—staff “shall make the records promptly available to any person.� There are three exceptions that provide the agency with more time to respond: immense files, reports exempted due to privacy laws, or records that require redacting, Newton explained. In such cases, the public agency has up to 10 days to address the request, but is still required by law to respond—even if only to state a legal reason for denial.

The obstruction-of-information issue came to the forefront as the result of the firestorm over a proposed Wal-Mart in Atascadero. Between May 9 and 30, local activist Dave Broadwater sent numerous records requests to the beleaguered city in an attempt to uncover city staff’s possible involvement in the proposed construction of a the super store at the north end of Atascadero.

“I received no replies to my requests about City Council and City Staff contacts, which addressed all members of either body,� Broadwater said. “None of those replying [except George Luna] answered any questions about contacts with retailers. The 10-day clocks have run out on all these [California Public Records Act] requests.�

In a further search for information, Broadwater showed up at the city building to ask to see campaign contribution files. He said that the desk clerk told him to fill out a request form and wait 10 days, even though the clerk confirmed that the documents were open public records. After a lengthy argument with staff, Broadwater said, he was provided access to the files.

“If I hadn’t asserted myself and quoted the law I would have walked away empty handed,� Broadwater said.

Cindy Sasur, a member of Oppose Wal-Mart and the Atascadero Homeowners Association, also sent document requests to the city.

“It wasn’t until I complained to the city council and became rude that I received a reply,� Sasur said. “I had to quote the law and argue with City Clerk Marcia Torgerson that there was no excuse not to comply with my requests. They finally respond and allowed me to pick up the records I requested, though it took 14 days.�

Even the Atascadero Planning Commission has had difficulty getting information from members of the city’s closed lip-staff.

“For months, we have heard rumors about a Wal-Mart coming to town,� said commission member Roberta Fonzi. “The Planning Commissioner asked Community Development Director Warren Frace if he would respond to a freedom of information request from the commission. Frace said ‘No.’�

Frace didn’t respond to numerous requests for comment.

“The 10-day period is for all regular records requests,� Atascadero City Clerk Torgerson said in response to the types of allegations made by Broadwater and Sasur. “We have 14 more days for larger records. I and our city attorney do not agree that any records are to be available on request.�

Records are to be made available immediately—except when exempted—said Atascadero City Attorney Patrick Enright, who also said that he plans to explain the law to Torgerson.

The California Public Records Act was established in 1968 to provide citizens access to public records and to improve the accountability of state and local government.

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