Orange County Fair Preservation Society

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Unfair Secrecy at the Fairgrounds

By William Lobdell

A couple of weeks ago, I had asked, under the California Public Records Act, that the Orange County Fair and Events Center reveal how much it paid former state lawmaker Dick Ackerman to lobby (though that’s not the technical term since he’s not allow to lobby for one year after leaving office) Sacramento officials to keep the 150-acre fairgrounds ON the auction block after the governor proposed its sale this summer (every other high-profile property that the governor suggested was taken OFF the block because of effective lobbying by guardians of those entities).

In a way, it’s unfortunate that the California Public Records Act is even needed. In a perfect world, public officials and government agencies would know that they work for the public (their boss) and that any information they possess is the public’s and should be readily given up.

But public officials and government agencies inherently seek secrecy (it’s encoded in their DNA), believing they know what’s best for the public and the rest is none of anyone’s business. Yes, there’s arrogance involved, but it’s also much easier to operate behind closed doors than in the open.

I got a reply Friday from the spokeswoman from the OC Fair, who was relaying a message from a state deputy attorney general (who represents the state property):

This correspondence is in response to your correspondence requesting records under the Public Records Act which is contained in Government Code section 6250 et seq. Government Code section 6253, subdivision (c) permits an agency to extend the date for responding to a public records request for fourteen days beyond the original 10-day deadline for responding.  Pursuant to Government Code section 6253, subdivision (c), we are extending the date for responding to your request to December 4, 2009, in order to consult with our attorney regarding legal issues related to the disclosure of the requested records.

Wow, I thought. The deputy attorney general argued that the OC Fair had to delay my request because it had to “consult with [its] attorney regarding legal issues related to the disclosure of the requested records.”
So I wrote back:

You are abusing the California Public Records Act. My request was simple and a matter of public record: How much to Dick Ackerman get paid by the Orange County Fair and Event Center this year? It shouldn’t even take 10 days to deliver this basic piece of public information. There are no legal issues surrounding this request. It’s the public’s business to know how their money is being spent. And it’s your job to make sure you deliver that information as soon as its requested without dragging your feet with made-up excuses.

First, the OC Fair CEO refused to release conflict of interest forms when a citizen (the former mayor of Costa Mesa, no less) asked for them. Now you won’t provide what Ackerman is paid until 24 days after the request because of “legal issues” surrounding the request? Are you joking? I’ve been a journalist for 30 years and have never had this kind of secrecy within a government entity. There is no exemption that says you can withhold the amount of money you pay a lobbyist or whatever you are calling Ackerman.

Maybe someone over there should read the intro to the California Public Records Act:

“THE PEOPLE OF THIS STATE DO NOT YIELD THEIR SOVEREIGNTY TO THE AGENCIES WHICH SERVE THEM. THE PEOPLE, IN DELEGATING AUTHORITY, DO NOT GIVE THEIR PUBLIC SERVANTS THE RIGHT TO DECIDE WHAT IS GOOD FOR THE PEOPLE TO KNOW AND WHAT IS NOT GOOD FOR THEM TO KNOW. THE PEOPLE INSIST THEY MAY RETAIN CONTROL OVER THE INSTRUMENTS THEY HAVE CREATED.”
— CA PUBLIC RECORDS ACT

I’m hoping you can send me the Ackerman information on Monday and not in 14 days.
Guess what? Monday came and went with no dollar amount of what the OC Fair board authorized for lobbyist Dick Ackerman. Maybe we’ll have to wait another 13 days. Not legal, but in many ways, the Records Act is toothless.
Here’s what the OC Fair board and its attorneys haven’t figured out yet. The truth always comes out. In this case, too many interested parties are on the scent of something that smells way too much.

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