City Must Release Archer-Related Emails

Special to the Palisades News
As opponents of the controversial $100 million plan to expand the Archer School for Girls campus, we recently won a court order requiring disclosure of 146 emails written by or to city officials, including Councilman Mike Bonin, about the Archer project. This victory was achieved despite City Hall’s vigorous efforts to keep the content of these documents hidden from the public.
The City and Archer wrongly withheld these emails in violation of the law. This is a major victory for transparency and good government. Now the public will be able to see what the City and Archer were trying to hide about their internal deliberations concerning the school’s expansion project.
The fight over disclosing the emails is one battle in the Sunset Coalition’s larger war to overturn the City Council’s misguided decision to allow the Archer expansion project to go forward in a flurry of intense lobbying. According to the latest City records, Archer spent $985,016 to hire the law firm of Latham & Watkins and Sugerman Communications simply to lobby City Hall officials and influence their decisions regarding the expansion project.
Our Sunset Coalition—a partnership of the Brentwood Residents Coalition, the Brentwood Hills Homeowners Assn. and a number of concerned Brentwood community leaders—is suing Archer. Our lawsuit makes the case that Archer’s massive expansion project will overwhelm Brentwood with its illegally large structures, jeopardize the health of its own students with toxic fumes and swamp already-paralyzed Westside streets, including Sunset Boulevard, with thousands of additional vehicle trips.
Our L.A. Superior Court lawsuit alleges the campus expansion project-–involving nearly 250,000 square feet of construction and tens of thousands of construction-related truck trips–will “significantly burden not only the nearby residential community, but also the entire west side of Los Angeles.”
The controversial emails we are now about to secure were among thousands of City Hall documents initially delivered to us by the City in November during the regular course of the lawsuit.
During our inspection of these many documents, we found 173 emails whose content was redacted or otherwise obscured without a valid reason. We made a motion demanding the release of those documents.
Superior Court Judge Robert H. O’Brien agreed there was a problem and ruled that 146 of the 173 emails contained information that should be released.
O’Brien noted that “many [of the emails] reflect public commitments, efforts for compromise, evaluation of community interests, balancing interests, and frustration and venting regarding efforts at compromise apparently overseen by the councilman’s office . . . Also, many reflect internal on-going negotiations.”
O’Brien observed that some of the email comments were so frank and revealing that it is clear the authors “never meant [them] for general circulation.”
“This ruling could have a major impact on the way the City does business in the future,” according to our attorney Doug Carstens, a partner in the law firm of Chatten-Brown& Carstens. “Public employees, including elected officials, have now been warned that their emails can be made public. After all, these officials work for the public, not the other way around.”
Proposition 59, passed by voters in 2004, unequivocally established the public’s right of access to the writings of public officials. Proposition 59 amended the state Constitution to provide: “The people have the right of access to information concerning the conduct of the people’s business, and therefore, the meetings of public bodies and the writings of public officials and agencies shall be open to public scrutiny.”
“The public’s right to access records of public agencies is enshrined in our state Constitution,” said Carstens. “Despite this, the City sought to keep documents from being disclosed. That attempt has been resoundingly rejected by the Court.”
In the spring of 2015, only weeks before Archer’s project was scheduled for a City Council vote, the Brentwood community was blindsided when it learned that Councilman Bonin, individuals who we (mistakenly) considered to be our allies and Archer had agreed to a compromise plan to allow its massive school project to move forward.
That plan, in our view, failed to protect the legitimate interests of Brentwood, and that is why we at the Sunset Coalition are now suing the city.
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