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Vernon officials want Assembly speaker to provide $200,000 deposit for records he requested

City leaders say it would cost more than $1 million to comply with request for a massive amount of files. Speaker John Pérez is sponsoring legislation to disband the industrial city.

May 05, 2011|By Sam Allen, Los Angeles Times
  • Vernon officials want Assembly Speaker John Prez, right, to come up with a $200,000 deposit to cover the costs of printing documents dating back to 1980. A spokeswoman says Prez will have his own staff copy and collect the records and avoid paying the deposit.
Vernon officials want Assembly Speaker John Prez, right, to come up with… (Barbara Davidson / Los Angeles…)

Vernon officials want Assembly Speaker John Pérez to provide a $200,000 deposit before they begin fulfilling a voluminous public records request he submitted as part of his push to have the city disbanded.

Vernon said it wants the payment because the request for public records is so large it would cost the city more than $1 million to comply — an estimate that Pérez's office described as "absurd and ridiculous."

Pérez, a Democrat from Los Angeles, and Vernon are locked in a legislative showdown over the future of the industrial enclave just south of downtown Los Angeles. The Assembly last week approved a bill, AB 46, authored by Pérez that would disincorporate the city and hand over government operations to the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. If the Senate also approves the bill and Gov. Jerry Brown signs it into law, it would be the first time the state has dissolved a charter city.

Pérez has argued that Vernon — a city of about 1,800 businesses but fewer than 100 residents — lacks an independent electorate and that its officials have for decades failed to operate in an open way.

In response, Vernon launched a major ad campaign earlier this year touting its business-friendly practices, and officials have vowed to be more responsive to concerns about their municipal government.

Vernon officials said Wednesday they are in no way attempting to block Pérez from having access to the records. Rather, they said, the speaker had requested a large quantity of records, and retrieving them would require the city to obtain the assistance of outside contractors.

"None of the costs that have been estimated for this are out of line," city spokesman Fred MacFarlane said. "The speaker wants a lot of paper and a lot of files, so many that it would fill a small library."

MacFarlane said the city was following the same process it's used throughout the last year to deliver records to numerous other agencies and news organizations, including The Times. (The Times reported last year on high salaries and other benefits received by top Vernon officials. It also reported on possible conflicts of interest involving a former city administrator, who was indicted last October).

In a letter to Pérez, City Administrator Mark Whitworth said that some items in the request would require six months to produce and that the copies would total "5 metric tons" of paper, which would then be boxed and shipped to Sacramento.

Shannon Murphy, a Pérez spokeswoman, said that the speaker was planning to send his own staff to copy and collect the records and that he would not pay the $200,000 deposit.

Pérez had submitted a series of requests to Vernon in late March, asking for a massive set of documents dating as far back as 1980, including communications between city officials, financial reports, election records, meeting minutes and attorneys' contracts. Pérez's staff provided The Times a breakdown of the request, along with Vernon's response.

Vernon uses a Los Angeles law firm to review all of its records requests and determine which materials are exempt from disclosure, MacFarlane said. The firm, Latham & Watkins LLP, also represents Vernon on various energy finance matters and land-use issues. Several of its attorneys have helped coordinate the city's challenge to AB 46.

Attorneys from Latham & Watkins charge Vernon as much as $975 an hour, according to records reviewed by The Times.

MacFarlane said he wasn't certain whether legal billings were included in the estimate of total expenses required to produce documents.  

Terry Francke, an attorney who specializes in the California Public Records Act, said the city could not charge anyone requesting documents for attorney's fees incurred.

He also expressed doubts about Vernon's estimates. Francke said that the law allows public agencies to seek payment only for the cost of duplicating records and the cost of reconfiguring computer systems, if necessary.

"I can't believe that just plain re-programming to get that information should cost $700,000 or $1 million," said Francke, who is general counsel at Californians Aware, a nonprofit that promotes open government.

As part of its reform plan, Vernon hired John Van de Kamp, the former state attorney general, to perform an independent ethics review of the city. In an interview Wednesday, Van de Kamp said the request was "extraordinarily large" and the two sides should meet so that Pérez could narrow it.

Van de Kamp added that he did not believe the city was trying to hide any information.

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