When the Menlo Park Fire Protection District's governing board met on July 18, the agenda included an item requested by board President Peter Carpenter and Director Rob Silano: "Discuss Public Records Act Requests Received and Provide Direction to Staff."
"There have a been a couple of repeated requests from a particular individual for public records that in my sense have really required a lot of time and effort on the part of the staff," Mr. Carpenter told the board. "My concern is, is there some legal way for us to say, hey wait a minute, we will comply but there are limits to what we will do? Or are we just up against the wall as far as what the law requires?" he asked.
(The individual who made the requests was not identified, but fire Chief Harold Schapelhouman said the requests are not related to Atherton's fiscal review of the fire district.)
Atherton City Council member Cary Wiest, who is Atherton's liaison to the fire district, said Mr. Carpenter's comments surprised him because the fire board president has made several wide-ranging public-records requests to the town recently.
The requests started after the town began reviewing how much in tax revenues the fire district gets from the town, how much the district spends on serving Atherton, and what it might cost the town to get its fire services elsewhere. Mr. Carpenter's public-records requests, including three made in July, ask for years of emails, property tax information, meeting agendas and other information.
"I found it ironic that Mr. Carpenter was complaining about the time and costs incurred by the fire district in responding to PRA (Public Records Act) requests that are vague, ambiguous, and over broad" when he has made just such requests to Atherton, Councilmember Wiest said.
Mr. Carpenter, an Atherton resident, says he made all the requests as a private citizen. When the Almanac asked why he wants the fire district to try to limit its response to public-records requests while he is making similar requests to another agency, Mr. Carpenter said: "As a private citizen I am not available to respond to your questions."
The California Public Records Act requires public agencies to make non-confidential records available if requested. The law, adopted by the state Legislature in 1968 and added to the state constitution in 2004, allows government agencies to charge only the costs of copying the records.
In October, Mr. Carpenter requested "the total amount of property taxes and parcel taxes that the town collects from residences" in part of the Lindenwood neighborhood in Atherton where he lives, and "the description and cost of each specific service provided by the Town to the residences" in that neighborhood.
On July 8, Mr. Carpenter asked for: "All communications of any Town Council Member, the Town Manager and the Town Counsel regarding 1) the Menlo Park Fire Protection District, 2) the Fire Services Fiscal Review and 3) any communications with Matrix Consulting Group." At the urging of City Manager George Rodericks, Mr. Carpenter later limited that open-ended request to emails sent between Jan. 1, 2014, and July, 8, 2017.
Mr. Rodericks said he spent at least seven hours on that request, with additional time spent by the city attorney and city clerk.
At the July 18 fire board meeting, Mr. Carpenter made it clear he knew just how much work he had asked the town to do, saying he had spent many hours going through 44,000 personal emails after a public records request to the fire district.
Mr. Carpenter's October and July 8 requests to Atherton were made using his personal email and home address. However, the July 13 request from his fire district email account began: "As a Director of the Fire District I am concerned that the residents of the Fire District are being unfairly burdened by the demands of the Town and its Fiscal Review consultant ..."
That email asked for information on the town's interactions with 11 public agencies, ranging from the Mosquito and Vector Control District to the federal government.
Later that same day he asked for "the dates and agendas for any and all of the joint meetings that the Town Council has had with other governing bodies since Dec. 31, 2013."
When Mr. Carpenter was told that the answers to both questions are on the town's website, he made formal public records requests using his fire district email.
The next day Mr. Carpenter asked the town clerk to "relabel" both requests as from him as a private citizen.
Mr. Carpenter's habit of making statements about fire district business as a "private citizen" concerns Mr. Rodericks.
Mr. Rodericks said government officials do have rights to free speech. "But, you have a higher duty to carefully consider whether in speaking, you will be perceived as speaking personally and not from your office or whether someone will perceive you as speaking from your formal governmental official position."
"Sometimes," Mr. Rodericks said, "the line is blurred and it's hard to distinguish the difference. Merely changing the origin of the request from a governmental email address to a private email address does not solve the issue. Nor does declaring that you are speaking as a private citizen and not in your official capacity. Just the mere mention of your official capacity can color the conversation. While the legal bar may be different, it's a perception issue that rests with the receiver."
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