The First Amendment Coalition today sued Ventura County for violating the California Public Records Act by refusing to disclose COVID-19 information.
FAC’s push for transparency surrounding the coronavirus pandemic in Ventura began with a request for information about virus outbreaks at businesses, workplaces and other non-residential settings. FAC also sought information about COVID-19 deaths. Ventura County officials ignored or failed to substantively respond to both requests.
“It’s troubling that government officials would so blatantly disregard their transparency obligations at a time when people need more information, not less, about the public health emergency,” said First Amendment Coalition Executive David Snyder. “The California Public Records Act has remained the law of the land throughout the pandemic, and it’s unfortunate we have to ask a court to remind this county of that fact.”
These failures are characteristic of larger government transparency problems throughout the pandemic, evidenced by a spike in reports to FAC about officials flouting open-government requirements.
COVID-19 outbreak data
In January, FAC asked for data about COVID-19 infections at businesses and other settings meeting the criteria of three or more laboratory-confirmed COVID-19 cases, or an outbreak.
FAC asked for the names of entities, the dates the outbreak was known to the county, and the number of laboratory confirmed cases associated with each outbreak.
The county failed to respond for nearly a month, despite a 10-day requirement. When the county did finally respond, it refused to process the request, saying “the public interest is not served by diverting staff and resources away from emergency response to immediately respond to this request (Gov. Code § 6255).”
As FAC’s lawyers say in the lawsuit, the statute the county cited “does not give an agency carte blanche to cast the entire CPRA aside.”
County officials provided only a link to a website with some COVID-19 data, which FAC’s attorneys describe as inadequate.
FAC also asked for information about virus-related deaths. A March request sought records that contained the name, age, gender and city of residence of all those who died from COVID-19 or related complications.
More than seven weeks have passed, and the county has provided no response.
“The County’s failure to provide a proper determination or substantive response as to FAC’s requests for records is wholly inadequate and an impermissible dereliction of its duties under the CPRA and the California Constitution, Art. I § 3, and accordingly violates the public’s statutory and constitutional right of access,” the lawsuit says.
FAC is asking a judge to force the county to, without further delay, turn over the requested public records and to declare that the county has violated FAC’s rights. Additionally, FAC is asking for an injunction directing the county to waive all fees associated with the release of the records.
The lawsuit is part of FAC’s ongoing advocacy efforts to champion and enforce the state’s transparency laws through legislative oversight, strategic litigation and public education. Read more about our open-government work amid the pandemic on our COVID-19 page.
FAC is represented in the suit by Jonathan Segal, Rachel Goldberg and Joel Richert of Davis Wright Tremaine. Co-counsel are FAC Executive Director David Snyder, Litigation Director Glen A. Smith and Legal Fellow Sherene Tagharobi.
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