Prison Legal News Suing San Francisco, Sheriff's Department, and City Attorney Over Unanswered Public Records Request

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So much for the Sunshine Ordinance...
The public records request was not very complicated. Prison Legal News (PLN), a Seattle-based nonprofit and monthly journal, wanted to review all the litigation filed against the San Francisco Sheriff's Department, including settlements and verdicts.

PLN filed the records request with the Sheriff's Department on July 9, 2008, but was made to redirect its efforts to the city attorney's office, which finally produced a spreadsheet of 722 cases five months later (the request was apparently lost for a while). But according to a lawsuit PLN recently filed against the city, sheriff's department, and city attorney's office, City Attorney Dennis Herrera couldn't promise that the data provided was "all-encompassing."It's unclear what, if anything, might have been missing. But PLN doesn't publish stories based on incomplete data sets, said its editor, Paul Wright. "The fact that the city is saying they can't give us a comprehensive report strikes me as fishy," says Wright. He's not sure which is more alarming: that the city might be purposefully withholding data (which is illegal), or the alternative -- that the city attorney's office isn't sure if something might be missing. 

From a risk-management and liability perspective, Wright says, a city should strive to keep thorough, all-encompassing records of payouts. That allows a city to spot recurring problems that repeatedly cost the taxpayers. 

On March 27, 2009, PLN provided additional information and narrowed the request. But no response has been forthcoming according to the nonprofit's complaint, which petitions for injunctive and declaratory relief. In English, that means PLN just wants the records it has requested. 

A spokeswoman from the San Francisco Sheriff's Department said she was not prepared to give comments, as the department had not yet seen the lawsuit. A spokesman from the city attorney's office said they are still reviewing the suit, and might comment at a later date.

The suit is hardly unique. According to its pro-bono, San Francisco-based lawyer, Sanford Rosen, PLN has filed similar litigation against the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation and Los Angeles County. Other counties and states, including Washington, Texas, and San Diego, have been more forthcoming with public documents, said Wright, who was surprised at the trouble PLN has had here.

"What happened to San Francisco being the bastion of open government?" he asked.
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