Lois Henry

Tuesday, Oct 15 2013 08:00 PM

LOIS HENRY: Why won't they tell us about our own money?

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    Californian columnist Lois Henry

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    By John Harte / Special to The Californian

    Bakersfield College defeats City College of San Francisco to win California community college football championship. The Renegades celebrate their state championship. Players from left are Alex Cortez (50), Chris Hannible, Grant Campbell (5), Alfredo Vargas (42), Ron Douglas (86) and Austin Tijerina.

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By Lois Henry

No, no, no, NO. A citizen asking how much a public agency is spending on a lawsuit should never, ever, be forced to file a public records request for that information.

Wrong.

Related Info

Lois Henry appears on "First Look with Scott Cox" every Wednesday on KERN 1180 AM from 9 to 10 a.m. The show is also broadcast live on www.bakersfield.com. You can get your two cents in by calling 842-KERN.

Such information is absolutely public and should be released immediately.

If I were a charitable person, I might assume the Kern Community College District, which pulled the "public records" stunt with us recently, was simply ignorant of its duty to divulge that information.

If I lived to be 150 I wouldn't have that much charity in my soul.

No, my view is the district's "go file a request" maneuver was a ham-fisted attempt to thwart the public's ability to see how its money is being spent. Particularly on this lawsuit, which not everyone supports. (That includes me.)

If you don't know what I'm talking about, I encourage you to go back and read Monday's Ask TBC item which details the ridiculous rabbit hole KCCD sent us down rather than answer a straight up question.

A reader asked us who was paying for the ill-advised (my words not his) lawsuit by KCCD against the California Community College Athletic Association and Southern California Football Association.

We added to reader Craig Holland's question by also asking how much the district had set aside for the suit.

For background, you should know that Bakersfield College was stripped of its 2012 state football championship for breaking a number of rules against subsidizing college athletes.

An audit paid for by BC confirmed the rules were violated. But the district still exhausted all its appeals at the association level and then decided to sue to try and get the sanctions overturned.

Look, there's no doubt BC broke the rules. Its own audit showed that. The sanctions may be harsh, but no more so than what other schools have received for similar violations.

The appeals were a waste of time and this lawsuit is just throwing good money after bad.

But back to the money.

Californian metro editor Christine Bedell emailed a BC spokeswoman on Sept. 20 asking where, exactly, the money for the suit was coming from and how much the district had authorized for this silly charade (my words, not hers.)

Correct response: KCCD has authorized up to $50,000 out of the district's reserve funds.

Actual response: File a public records request.

Oh, but it gets worse.

Those of you who don't spend your working hours knocking your head against public agencies that constantly have to be reminded of who they work for probably don't know how some agencies like to use the California Public Records Act to play little games of hide-and-seek.

Let me enlighten you.

First, making a public records request means just that: you are requesting a specific record.

Second, the act allows an agency up to 10 working days to respond to your request in order for the agency to A) retrieve the record and B) determine if it is releasable under the law.

Asking "how much is your agency spending" on a particular item, is not asking for a specific record.

Since this wasn't her first time at the rodeo, Bedell knew good and well her question wasn't a public "record" request and tried to work with the district. But noooo, KCCD officials insisted on the request.

And some agencies will take that full 10 days and then some only to eventually tell you to go pound sand.

That's exactly what KCCD did.

"A public agency is not required to provide answers to questions or interrogatories under Government Code Section 6250 et seq.," wrote KCCD's general counsel Christopher W. Hine in a letter dated Oct. 8 in response to Bedell's Sept. 25 request.

Let us pause for a moment and reflect.

KCCD refused to tell us how much it was spending on a lawsuit, demanded we file a public records request, then denied it because we weren't asking for a specific record.

Ha ha, funny game.

I have often wondered if public employees who engage in these kinds of shenanigans actually get a giggle out of it or, after so many years, it's just SOP for them.

Either way, I think someone at KCCD deserves more than just a knuckle rap for how this was handled.

I contacted John Corkins, president of the KCCD board of trustees and asked his thoughts.

Corkins was extremely forthcoming about the money for the lawsuit, where it's coming from and the board's reasoning for pursuing the lawsuit.

He was even able to reel off budget figures without a public records request. Such as, while the board has authorized up to $50,000 out of reserves for this lawsuit, that's a tiny fraction of the approximately $10 million district reserve fund. (For future reference: When getting the run-around by KCCD, call a trustee.)

He wasn't sure whether or not the district had acted properly in how it responded to our questions as, he said, he isn't an expert on public records policy.

All told, it took Bedell 15 working days, several phone calls, emails and hunting through raw budget numbers to finally piece together the answer to Holland's question about how public tax dollars are being spent.

You don't need to be an expert to know that is just flat wrong.

Opinions expressed in this column are those of Lois Henry, not The Bakersfield Californian. Her column appears Wednesdays and Sundays. Comment at http://www.bakersfield.com, call her at 395-7373 or e-mail lhenry@bakersfield.com

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