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Roseville resident makes use of public records laws

Sunshine Week promotes the public’s right to know
By: Sena Christian, The Press Tribune
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Roseville resident Theresa McInnes loves the country she's called home since becoming a U.S. citizen in 1959 -- and this sentiment has prompted her to become a proponent of accessing public records.

Over the past decade, she has been a regular visitor to the Roseville City Clerk's office where staff knows her by name. The retired government auditor has asked for hundreds of pages worth of documents and publishes her subsequent reports in the Friends of Roseville FOREfront newsletter. She isn't a member of the citizen's watchdog group.

"I love this country and the open government it promises to us all," said McInnes, who originally hails from the island of Norderney. "In that area, the people of Roseville are getting short shrift from their city. With my work, I would like to be their voice."

McInnes exemplifies someone who takes advantage of the California Public Records Act, which passed in 1968 and is similar to the federal Freedom of Information Act. Sunshine Week started March 11 and runs through Saturday as a way to highlight these laws that allow people to access public information.

Sunshine Week is a national initiative to promote the public's right to know what the government - from the local to federal level - is doing and why, and is spearheaded by the American Society of Newspaper Editors.

"The idea is to take a week during the year to focus on open government to get people talking about it. My sense this year is that it's growing," said the association's Executive Director Richard Karpel. "It's important for the quality of our democracy. If people don't know what their government is doing, it's hard to know how they should vote or what direction they should take."

The city of Roseville received 233 public records requests from January 2011 to the present, according to statistics provided by city spokeswoman Megan MacPherson. The City Clerk's office spent 221 hours responding to these requests.

Those statistics don't include the several requests made monthly by Press Tribune reporters, nor do they include hours spent fulfilling requests by other city departments.

Roseville Mayor Pauline Roccucci said the city must maintain transparency to ensure people's trust in their local government.

"It's the citizen's right to have access to public records and know their tax dollars are being used wisely and that their elected representatives are making good ethical decisions," Roccucci said.

McInnes first researches the rules and regulations related to the specific issue she plans to investigate. Then she goes to the City Clerk's Office and fills out a Public Records Request specifying the information she wants.

She said this department is usually helpful in fulfilling her request, which they must provide immediately or within 10 working days if the records aren't readily available. But that's when the helpfulness ends, she said.

"The big problem is the city manager's office with the advice from the city attorney," McInnes said.

She often battles with the city on her requests, including her current attempts to obtain records concerning the Roseville Community Development Corporation. She was informed that the city "does not maintain these records (as the corporation) is a private, nonprofit corporation that is separate and distinct from the city of Roseville," according to a letter from City Clerk Sonia Orozco.

"But they're operating with our money," McInnes said.

She has researched all sorts of issues through the years, including travel and meal expenditures. She is still frustrated with the city's report on the Westfield Galleria arson in 2010 and believes critical questions weren't answered.

Karpel said citizens should be persistent in seeking information that is legally available.

"People just have to be vigilant," he said. "And if they run into walls, look for organizations that can help."

Sara Seyydin contributed to this report.

Sena Christian can be reached at senac@goldcountrymedia.com. Follow her on Twitter at SenaC_RsvPT.

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City of Roseville Public Records Act requests from July 2010 to present:

(Includes time spent by the City Clerk department and not by any other departments)

Timeframe

Number of requests

Hours spent by City Clerk Department

July to September 2010

49

44.25 hours

October to December 2010

55

71.50 hours * Galleria Fire docs

January to March 2011

47

59.25 hours

April to June 2011

35

32.25 hours

July to September 2011

24

37 hours

October to December 2011

62

36.75 hours

January to present

65

56.35 hours

Total

337

337.35

Sunshine Week

Submitting a California Public Records Act Request:

  • The public records act sets time limits for government agencies to respond to requests. In California, the agency must respond in writing within 10 days, either by fulfilling the request, explaining why the request is exempt or explaining that additional research is needed to fulfill the request.
  • Make requests as specific as possible
  • There are exceptions to your right to government information. For example, personnel files, test questions, trade secrets and personal information are exempt. Documents on a criminal case will usually have personal names and identifying information blacked out.
  • Most government agencies will charge a fee per page for copying documents