El Dorado County grappling with email release following lawsuit
SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. — El Dorado County Auditor-Controller Joe Harn has been ordered to cut a check to the tune of $115,132 in fees to attorneys representing El Dorado Hills property owner Dean Getz.
Harn received the Superior Court order May 11, following the conclusion of a lawsuit Getz filed seeking emails between county planners and Parker Development Company.
“Mr. Getz filed this lawsuit in 2019 apparently because he became extremely frustrated at the county’s lack of response,” Harn wrote to the county Board of Supervisors last month. “Getz’ public records request also sought copies of emails to and from the District Attorney’s Office. The county won this case at the Superior Court level so Getz appealed.”
According to the case summary overview for the lawsuit, the trial court originally ruled that the county’s refusal to produce the text of 42,852 indexed emails was justified due to the petitioner’s records request being overbroad and unduly burdensome.
However, the appellate court deemed to the contrary. “… the county cannot resist disclosure merely by citing exemptions and claiming that the requested e-mails must be reviewed to ‘ensure’ that exempted materials are not present,” notes the appellate ruling, despite the county’s attempt to contend a common interest doctrine between the county and Parker Development Company.
Harn told the Mountain Democrat the county has paid outside counsel more than $40,000 so far fighting Mr. Getz’ request for public records. Although he admitted Getz’ records request seemed unreasonably broad, Harn called the county’s decision to contest this matter at the appellate level without exhausting all avenues of compromise “a mistake and a big waste of money.”
“At taxpayers’ expense, a number of county employees communicated back and forth in writing via email to a big real estate developer,” states Harn. “These employees want to keep the emails secret. State law says they are not secret. Now the county is spending still more of the taxpayers’ money trying to keep these emails secret. It makes you real curious about what is in these emails.”
Though County Counsel David Livingston maintained that he typically refrains from commenting on active litigation matters, he did respond to Harn’s statement by referring to the hundreds of public records requests the county receives annually. “Responding to this volume of requests can be extraordinarily taxing on the county’s limited staff resources,” he said. “Accordingly, to ensure that requesting parties get the records that they want and in order to minimize the impacts on county resources, county staff often work closely with requesting parties to better tailor the request.”
Livingston insisted that Getz’ request is a rare exception. “In fact, of the thousands of Public Records Act requests the county received over the past 10 years, this is the only request that has led to litigation,” he said, also noting that the county accepts the Court of Appeal’s decision. “Indeed, despite urging from other public agencies, the county declined to further appeal the decision to the California Supreme Court.”
Regarding Harn’s contention that the county has not released the emails since the appellate court’s decision was released Nov. 17, 2021, Livingston pointed out that jurisdiction of the case was only returned to the Superior Court on March 21.
“Despite the Court of Appeal’s clear direction for further proceedings, until recently Mr. Getz’ attorneys refused to acknowledge the need to obtain a revised court order from the Superior Court,” Livingston said. “Now that they recognize the need to follow the process directed by the Court of Appeal, we look forward to resolving this matter as quickly as possible and producing all non-exempt records responsive to the subject Public Records Act request.”
Getz confirmed that not only has he received nothing from the county, he is considering filing an ex parte motion to compel the release of the emails.
“For whatever reason, there’s a whole lot of foot dragging going on,” he said. “It’s unbelievable that the county has continued to play this game and I think what it really suggests is that there’s something in there that they don’t want to produce. It seems like they’re more interested in delaying the production of whatever those emails uncover and it doesn’t really matter what it costs because it’s not their money,.”
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