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Wed, Apr

CA Feuer, Mayor Garcetti, Councilman Koretz Ignoring Public Records Requests … Is There Something to Hide?

LOS ANGELES

ANIMAL WATCH-On February 1, 2016, in my CityWatch article, “Has L.A. Animal Services Brenda Barnette Crossed the Line with Questionable Fundraising MOU?”  I questioned why a nonprofit corporation created by former Villaraigosa-appointed Commissioner Maggie Neilson, Global Philanthropy CEO, as a charitable arm for LA Animal Services, was registered as “The Los Angeles Animal Rescue Foundation.”  

On January 12, 2016, LAAS GM Barnette urged the Animal Services Commission to approve a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) and stated the purpose is “…to support the work of the Department much the way the LAPD Foundation, the LAFD Foundation, the Library Foundation and others support the work of City Departments.”  

However, other City department “supporting foundations” clearly mention in their name the agency for which they are soliciting funds.  

So why wasn’t “The Los Angeles Animal Rescue Foundation” incorporated as “Los Angeles Animal Services Foundation” or “Friends of Los Angeles Animal Services?” Both were available according to the CA Secretary of State.

It is also perplexing that the Articles of Incorporation for ‘The Los Angeles Animal Rescue Foundation’ state: 

“The specific purpose of the Corporation is to ensure every animal has a home and that no adoptable animals are euthanized in Los Angeles.” 

While the official mandated Mission Statement of the Department of Animal Services, which is budgeted as a public-safety agency, is: 

To promote and protect the health, safety and welfare of animals and people.” 

Why would a nonprofit charity be set up with an idealistic statement of purpose not closely related to the realistic mission of the agency for which it purports to raise funds? There is a major difference between a municipal, taxpayer-funded public animal shelter which takes in all animals in need (regardless of condition or behavior) and a “rescue,” which is a private organization and can choose to accept only adoptable animals.  

According to the Board Report, Deputy City Attorney Dov Lesel had been working on this MOU with Ms. Neilson and LAAS staff “for the past couple of years,” indicating that City Attorney Mike Feuer is fully aware of this proposal. She also mentioned that it is supported by the Mayor.

So, if a Deputy City Attorney is preparing documents for a private company to submit to the City Council -- prior to instruction or approval by that body -- is he acting as counsel for the City or for the non-profit? And, what other City officials and/or employees have been involved? 

No accusation of wrongdoing has been alleged, but inquiring minds want (and deserve) to know.

To that end, on February 23, 2016, I sent California Public Records Act requests to City Attorney Mike Feuer, Mayor Eric Garcetti, Councilman Paul Koretz and LAAS GM Brenda Barnette, which can be read at CF16-0070 in the City Clerk’s file. Certified receipts show the letters arrived on February 25.

Those familiar with the process know that the agency has ten days to either respond and provide the information, deny that they have such documents, or ask for a 14-day extension of time. Councilman Koretz and Mayor Garcetti were informed that a copy of each of their letters was also being sent to the City Attorney as the City’s legal advisor. 

Not one of these officials responded -- including City Attorney Mike Feuer. 

Is it possible nothing was done in writing? According to Brenda Barnette’s report, a number of City officials collaborated and this is essentially a fait accompli. Could a several-year project simply have been conducted by phone, with not a single person writing a note or sending even one e-mail? 

Or did they possibly use private e-mail accounts -- a la Hillary Clinton? 

Although we don’t want to believe steps would intentionally be taken by the City to limit transparency, Jim Bickhart, former aide to Mayor Villaraigosa, sent a very rambling e-mail to the LA Animal Services Commissioners on January 14, 2012 which appears to be an effort to do just that. (Bickhart is now under contract to Councilman Paul Koretz as Speedway Policy Associates.) 

Jim Bickhart oversaw the Department of Animal Services and the Commission for the Mayor. He coordinated the appointment of animal issue-neophyte Maggie Neilson, CEO of Global Philanthropy, in April 2013 to replace the very popular, knowledgeable and independent Commissioner Kathleen Riordan  (who had recently been appointed to a new term.) 

I am providing the lengthy e-mail from Bickhart to the Commission in its entirety (below) to assure full disclosure. However, I direct your attention to the bolded areas (emphasis added)--especially the first paragraph, which begins, “You’ll note that I’m e-mailing you from my personal e-mail address.”

Then in a later sentence Bickhart writes: So I would suggest that you take the this [sic] precaution: If you don't want what you say to be subject to possible public disclosure, don't put something in writing to a public official's work e-mail account.”  

(Ironically, I received this e-mail in a response to a CPRA on an unrelated topic.) 

 

Note: All emphasis in the following e-mail is added.

From: [email protected]
To: [email protected][email protected][email protected][email protected][email protected]
CC: [email protected]
Sent: 1/14/2012 5:03:22 P.M. Pacific Daylight Time
Subj: some notes on use of correspondence in the public sector

Dear Commissioners,

You'll note that I'm e-mailing you from my personal e-mail address.  I'm doing so by way of providing an example, even though I believe it would have been fully appropriate to send this to you from work.

Because of all the stir being created relative to your work by a certain member of the public, I am reminded that I owe you all an apology for a couple of things.

First, I apologize for not checking with each of you during your appointment processes to be sure you were not overlooking any paperwork-related situations that someone with an agenda might later be able to exploit in efforts to embarrass you. I don't think I have to belabor the point that in contemporary politics, there are people looking to say "Gotcha!" at the slightest provocation and a variety of tools have been provided to them for doing so.

Much as one of my jobs as a staffer for an elected official is to try to eliminate opportunities for people to do that to my boss, it's also my obligation to do that for those of you who are volunteering your valuable time, along with your reputations, to help us all try to do a
better job on behalf of the people (and, in this case, the animals).  By not doing that due diligence with you when I should have, I let you, and my boss, down.  So, again, I apologize.

Second, my other sin of omission was to fail to make it known that EVERY kind of written correspondence that emanates from or is received by a public sector official (elected or otherwise), is subject to public disclosure via either the state Public Records Act or the federal Freedom of Information Act.

That means your e-mails, memos and letters to anyone working in government are potentially subject to being revealed to the media or other individuals if they request it in accordance with the procedures set forth in those laws.  For sure there are limitations - usually comparable to those applied to evidence being excluded in court procedures - but in general we all need to keep in mind that anything we send to each other might end up being seen by people we didn't expect would ever see it.

During my tenure in the Mayor's office I've been subjected to no fewer than a half dozen Public Records Act requests for my City e-mails and other documents.  I can attest that it's a royal pain to be forced to comb through hundreds of e-mails at the behest of someone who's on a "fishing expedition" for one reason or another.  I certainly understand the motive behind these disclosure laws and support transparency in government, but I highly doubt that those who created these laws properly anticipated how they might be employed in ways that shed more nuisance than they do sunlight.

A key rule we in the Mayor's office are told early on is, "Don't put anything in an e-mail you wouldn't want to see in the newspaper later on."  It's good advice that I should have told you a long time ago (and should remind myself of way more often than I do).  Not that it's been a
problem with 99.9% of your e-mails to City Hall, but you just never know when that 0.1% might be sitting around in somebody's in-box when a PRA request comes in. 
Believe me, I know, because I'm a way bigger offender than any of you will ever be.

So I would suggest that you take the this [sic] precaution: If you don't want what you say to be subject to possible public disclosure, don't put something in writing to a public official's work e-mail account.  This doesn't need to apply to simple communications such as, "I can't attend the next meeting," or "Can you call me this afternoon?"  Messages that don't contain opinions or potentially problematic revelations are not the issue.  None of us really cares if someone else is bored (or disappointed) by them after they're disclosed.

As we've seen in the last few months, it doesn't take much for certain kinds of people to go out of their way to make you, as volunteers who are trying to do something positive, wonder why you bothered in the first place.  To be frank, I feel that way regularly, but I'm being paid.  You're not (at least not for this).  I owe it to you to do what I can to protect you from being placed in that position and I should have taken steps to do so earlier.  Once we've made an error, there's not much any of us can do to avoid taking some lumps, and our ethical obligation is to make sure we're treated like anyone else would be in the same circumstances.  So it's best to be doubly sure we're staying out of harm's way in the first place.

On that sobering note, I hope everyone is having a good MLK weekend.

Jim 

 

The Mayor, City Attorney, Councilman Paul Koretz, and Brenda Barnette have another chance to respond to my CPRA about the proposed Global Philanthropy MOU before any further action is considered. 

On March 23, a letter advising them of their Failure to Respond to the CPRA was sent and also placed in the City Clerk’s file CF16-0070. It provides the opportunity to rectify this matter promptly. I hope they will do so.

 

(Animal activist Phyllis M. Daugherty writes for CityWatch and is a contributing writer to opposingviews.com. She lives in Los Angeles.) Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.

  

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