Monday, September 5, 2011

City of Arcata to be Sued for Denying Public Records Request

Arcata threatened with lawsuit over records

Jessica Cejnar/The Times-Standard

A former Arcata commissioner is threatening to sue the city unless it releases information on the amount of money it spends on private attorneys.

According to Arcata resident Marc Delany, city officials refused to release the total amount of fees it paid to every private attorney hired to represent Arcata over the last three years.

According to a letter attorney Peter Martin sent to the Arcata City Council on Delany's behalf Wednesday, city officials refused to release that information, claiming it is subject to attorney-client privilege.

Arcata City Manager Randy Mendosa said the city spent a substantial amount of time and cost to meet Delany's request but said he was unsure if the legal costs were included. Mendosa also said because Delany has hired an attorney to represent him and has threatened to sue the city, he couldn't comment further on the issue.

”Our staff works hard to comply with as many public records as requested by the public,” he said. “It's something we take very seriously.”

Arcata City Attorney Nancy Diamond was unavailable for comment.

Martin and Delany, a former member of Arcata's Historic and Design Review Commission, are part of a new organization called the Humboldt Civil Liberties Defense Fund, which formed last week. Martin said Delany filed the public records act request with the city on July 11 and received a response 10 days later asking for more time to compile the requested documents.

When the city again responded on Aug. 11, it turned over records of the cases Arcata has been involved in and the attorneys who represented the city, but the amount of public funds spent to pay for those attorneys was missing, Delany said.

”We're trying to figure out what the trend line is for city expenditures for legal costs,” Delany said. “We're kind of curious about things the city has done that clearly didn't match up with what the rules and regulations were.”

According to Martin, the city claimed that its legal costs is privileged information.

”In my view of the law, there's no basis for that,” he said, adding that he and Delany would give the city two more weeks to respond to their records request. “Mr. Delany will then bring an action in superior court to enforce the demand if it's not complied with.”

The amount of money cities pay in legal fees is a matter of public record, said Duffy Carolan, an attorney with San Francisco law firm Davis Wright Tremaine LLP. Any advice and confidential communications that take place between a city council and their outside counsel can be redacted, she said, but the amount of attorneys' fees isn't something that can be withheld from the public.

”Many agencies hire outside counsel that are private attorneys as opposed to just having something done through the city attorney,” Carolan said. “How would the public ever be able to assess the city's decision to go with that particular firm in light of other firms?”

Martin said the Humboldt Civil Liberties Defense Fund will monitor cases in which peoples' civil liberties may have been affected and will provide funding to help pay for cases that it feels are a worthy cause. One case the organization is interested in is Richard Salzman's lawsuit against Arcata over its panhandling ordinance, said Martin, who is representing Salzman.

Jessica Cejnar can be reached at 441-0504 or at

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