A self-described investigative reporter filed a lawsuit last month against San Juan Capistrano city councilwoman Pam Patterson over a California Public Records Act request. Clinton Worthington, who cites his past scribbles as a local columnist in the Capistrano Dispatch and Community Common Sense newspaper in a related temporary restraining order request, isn’t trying to pry Patterson’s emails and text messages from undue delays or unjustified exemptions. Instead, he wants a protective court order sealing his correspondences with her from a records request made by the Weekly in April; one that still hasn’t been completely fulfilled to this date.
In representing himself, Worthington (any relation to Cal?) notes in the suit that he’s someone “who has entered into private communications with Patterson in her capacity as a fellow resident, friend, attorney and someone he voted for to represent him as a city council member with respect to local city interests as well as regional interests.” The gadfly, who ran a failed campaign for San Juan Capistrano city council in 2010, took umbrage with respect to public record digging efforts aimed at the councilwoman. The complaint alleges that the Weekly, among others, attempted to access Worthington’s “private correspondence” with Patterson in an ask that, if fulfilled, would be a violation of his first amendment and civil rights as well as attorney-client exemptions.
Three days after the suit, Worthington sought a temporary restraining order on the grounds that absent one, Patterson “stated her intention to release all of these private and/or privileged communications to the City of San Juan Capistrano,” ones that would allegedly “disclose privileged news sources, attorney-client privileged communications and private personal communications.” The city clerk’s office has already cited attorney-client privilege in denying this infernal rag certain documents related to our request.
Back on April 3, the Weekly undertook a limited “fishing expedition” and asked for all of Patterson’s public record correspondences dating back from Jan. 15 to the date of the request–roughly a two-and-a-half month period of time. The city clerk’s office took the 10 calendar days allotted by the California Public Records Act (CPRA) to form a response, one where they legally noted a need for a 14-day extension given the breadth of the request.
“The City has already commenced a review of your request in an effort to make the requisite determination under the Act; however more time is needed to complete such a comprehensive records review,” wrote Matisse Reischl, an administrative specialist in the city clerk’s office, at the time. “As noted above, the City’s written determination as to whether the request seeks copies of disclosable, non-exempt and non-privileged public records in the possession of the agency on or before Friday, April 27th.”
All seemed par for the course. The Weekly received a batch of responsive records in early May, including a chain of emails where Patterson refused to order non-halal food from NYC Cafe, a restaurant that also serves halal food on its menu, for a city meeting. The Weekly reported the story on May 10 based on the obtained email exchanges between Patterson and city staffers. (Among other gems, Patterson once unsuccessfully tried to reimburse mileage from the city for a trip to a Christmas party at Curt Pringle & Associates!) But the city clerk’s office still had a bit of work to do in order to fulfill our request, promising another batch on May 4. “We are continuing to work diligently with Council Member Patterson to retrieve additional records and will give you an update no later than Friday, May 18, 2018,” Reischle wrote this reporter in a May 8 email.
The first scheduled update, as it turned out, coincided with the filing date of Worthington’s suit. Afterward, subsequent updates from the city clerk’s office offered the same line about working with Patterson, but May 18 became June 1 and is now June 15. In the middle of all the back-and-forth, a handful of boring documents from Patterson’s private attorney email address were turned over on May 31 and dealt with her trusteeship on the Orange County Mosquito and Vector Control District.
“The City has been working with Council Member Patterson to obtain all records in her possession that may be responsive,” Maria Morris, city clerk, writes the Weekly. “If Council Member Patterson provides additional records to the City, the City will ensure that any responsive items are transmitted…as quickly as possible.” Morris added that the city already forked over all related documents maintained in its possession and that the suit isn’t a factor in the “timing” or “substance” of her office’s response.
That only leaves public matters that may have been discussed in private emails and text messages. In court documents, Worthington, who actually had time enough to complain to the city about a recent Del Taco roof tile paint job being “low-rider green,” noted his belief that Patterson used non-city email accounts and text messages in her work as an attorney and in private life with associates. In making an argument for a potential class action suit, he cites last year’s California Supreme Court ruling in a case where an activist sought records thought to be stored on private emails or personal devices. The unanimous opinion of the appellate court held that in order to qualify as a public record “a writing must relate in some substantive way to the conduct of the public’s business.” But they also struck a balance between transparency and privacy.
“The issue is a narrow one: Are writings concerning the conduct of public business beyond CPRA’s reach merely because they were sent or received using a nongovernmental account?” the appellate court ruling read. “Considering the statute’s language and the important policy interests it serves, the answer is no.”
A case management conference in the Worthington suit is scheduled for Sept. 21 in Judge Randall J. Sherman’s courtroom.
In the meantime, lengthy delays by Patterson and the lawsuit from her political pal only begs the question: what do they have to hide?
Gabriel San Roman is from Anacrime. He’s a journalist, subversive historian and tallest Mexican in OC.