A new lawsuit filed by the First Amendment Coalition against Los Angeles highlights local governments’ all-too-common—and illegal—practice of destroying public records.
The suit, filed Thursday in Superior Court for Los Angeles County, focuses on documents that went missing when a termed-out council member, Tom LaBonge, left office in 2015. Thousands of documents about city business—”public records” under California law—had been boxed up, marked for destruction, and removed from LaBonge’s council office, according to news accounts at the time.
FAC filed a request under the California Public Records Act for LaBonge’s memos, communications and other records concerning public matters in which, as council member, he was prominently involved during the final two years of his tenure. These included the LA Department of Water & Power, the California Film Commission, and a controversial housing development in Sherman Oaks. FAC’s request was denied on the basis that a search found no responsive records.
Although the CPRA does not address how long agencies and governments have to keep public records, other state laws say public records must be retained a minimum of two years. One of the objectives of FAC’s lawsuit is a court order directing the city to take appropriate measures to comply with the two-year retention rule.
“The people’s right of access to public records obviously presupposes that cities and counties will retain them,” said FAC executive director Peter Scheer. “The right of access would be worthless if cities and counties could escape their obligations by destroying records.”
“Public records belong to the people,” Scheer continued. “When officials destroy public records they are destroying property of the people, paid for with tax dollars.”
FAC’s lawyer in the case is Kelly Aviles of Los Angeles.
A copy of the lawsuit can be seen here.