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Santa Monica Group Praises California Supreme Court Decision on Public Records  

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By Jonathan Friedman
Associate Editor

March 3, 2017 -- A Santa Monica activist group is happy about the California Supreme Court's ruling on Thursday that widens the scope of what qualifies as a public record.

The Court determined in a unanimous decision that public records include communications about government business done through officials' private email accounts and text messages.

Santa Monica Coalition for a Livable City (SMCLC), a slow-growth activist group often at odds with the City government, released a statement on Thursday saying the decision should be a “wake-up call to City Hall.”

Diana Gordon, co-chair of SMCLC, claimed in the statement that the Santa Monica government “[treats] public records requests as at best an annoyance, at worst a challenge to their right to govern without public interference or scrutiny.”

City officials have not responded publicly to this statement, but it is unlikely they share the opinions included in it.

Santa Monica was not part of the lawsuit that led to the Supreme Court decision, although the League of California Cities (of which Santa Monica is a member) filed an amicus brief with an opposing view of what the court eventually determined.

The lawsuit was filed by Ted Smith, a San Jose community activist who filed a public records request eight years ago to access communications by that city’s council members and staff about a proposed downtown development.

A trial court judge agreed with Smith, but that decision was reversed by a Court of Appeal panel--leading to the final decision by the Supreme Court.

SMCLC says that it wants the City to maintain “all public records using private accounts,” among other demands.

Even if the City complied with that demand, SMCLC and others should not expect to learn about every conversation among City officials. Justice Carol A. Corrigan wrote in the Court decision that there are limits.

“At a minimum, a writing must relate in some substantive way to the conduct of the public's business,” she wrote. “This standard, though broad, is not so elastic as to include every piece of information the public may find interesting.”

Corrigan continued, “The public might be titillated to learn that not all [government] workers enjoy the company of their colleagues, or hold them in high regard. However, an employee's electronic musings about a colleague's personal shortcomings will often fall far short of [qualifying as a public record]."

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