The weekly newspaper Metro Silicon Valley has scored a victory for public transparency with Judge Carol Overton’s ruling that the County of Santa Clara must release documents on the political activities of the nonprofit Santa Clara Family Health Foundation. Information from the documents appear in today’s issue of Metro, and on the SanJoseInside.com website.
The documents, released to Metro on Friday, shed new light on how a recent ballot initiative was passed and how union-affiliated political groups interact with local nonprofits to influence public policy behind-the-scenes. “These are the Pentagon Papers of local politics,” said Metro Executive Editor Dan Pulcrano. “For the first time, the public will see, how groups here hatch schemes to tap the public treasury, as well as what they say in secret when they think their actions will never come to light.”
The foundation refused to provide documents or grant interviews in March when Metro first wrote about a campaign to raise county taxes by a half-billion dollars over the next 10 years. A ballot initiative was approved by voters in November 2012. Directors of nine local non-profit organizations wrote a March 29 letter that attacked Metro’s initial reporting on the political activity of two nonprofits as “bad for free speech.”
On April 16, Metro filed a request for records under the California Public Records Act (CPRA). SCFHF responded ten days later with a letter denying the CPRA request. “Per the direction of our attorney, the PRA does not apply to the Foundation, as it is a private, nonprofit corporation. Therefore, the Foundation is not obligated to and hereby elects not to produce any records responsive to your Request. The Foundation now considers this matter closed,” wrote Board Chair Dana Ditmore.
County officials disagreed, however. Noting that Santa Clara Family Health Foundation executive Kathleen King was a county employee and that the documents resided on county email servers, the county determined that the documents were public records that should be made available to the public. “Our position is they were clearly public records,” county counsel Donald Larkin argued at the hearing.
SCFHF held an emergency meeting on on Monday, May 13 and sued the county on May 15 in an attempt to block the disclosure. (The county has access to the electronic records because the Health Foundation uses servers and email addresses of Santa Clara Family Health Plan, the public agency that established and provides office space to the non-profit foundation.)
“The Application is denied,” Overton wrote in the May 17 Santa Clara County Superior Court ruling. “Petitioner has failed to establish that the subject records in the possession of Respondent are not public records within the meaning of the Public Records Act.
“Moreover, Petitioner has otherwise failed to substantiate its claim that it will be irreparably harmed unless the Application is granted.”
Metro was represented by noted First Amendment lawyer Judy Alexander.