FAC sues Novato to compel release of secret emails

FAC has filed a lawsuit against Novato, CA to force the city to make public emails about a controversial sports complex proposed for the Hamilton Fields neighborhood.

The suit, filed July 12 in Marin County Superior Court (court documents posted below), contends that the emails relate to a public issue of importance to the local community, and that the city has failed to demonstrate a sufficient legal basis for keeping them secret.

“The emails belong to the public,” said Peter Scheer, FAC’s executive director. “Novato can’t keep them sealed up just because they might prove embarrassing to some city officials.”

FAC filed a request for records under the Public Records Act on June 7. The request sought copies of emails between the city planning department and two consulting firms, Victus and Sports Management Group, which had been retained to assess the viability of the proposed sports complex.

A similar request filed by Novato resident Alan Berson had been denied in May. Convinced that the city’s objections to Berson’s request were groundless, FAC filed its own request to give Novato a chance to reconsider its position. But Novato chose to dig in its heels instead, denying FAC’s request on June 16. FAC then filed a further letter, detailing why Novato’s legal argument didn’t apply. Novato did not respond.

The city contends the emails are exempt from release under the CPRA because they are subject to the “deliberative process privilege,” which protects certain records that reveal policymakers’ decision-making. However, not all records relevant to officials’ deliberations receive this protection. A government agency must also show that the public interest in keeping a specific record secret is greater than the public interest in disclosure of the record—a high standard.

“The deliberative process privilege has become the mantra of government officials who don’t trust the public to know what their government is doing,” commented Scheer. “We believe the privilege is overused and much abused.This case will be an important legal test of the limits of the privilege,” said Scheer.

FAC’s lawyer is Karl Olson of Ram, Olson, Cereghino & Kopcyznski, LLP in San Francisco. Olson is also a FAC Board member. –P SCHEER

[gview file=”https://firstamendmentcoalition.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/FAC-Novato-Petition-for-Writ-of-Mandate-FINAL.pdf” save=”1″]