UPDATED Withholding history of ‘Hell House’ might land WeHo in legal hot water

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West Hollywood City Hall has thus far failed to disclose a single e-mail, report, public notice, warning, memo or document of any kind related to the so-called  “Hell House” at 1030 North Sierra Bonita Ave. — a long-derelict structure that went up in flames on Thanksgiving Day — more than two months after WEHOonline officially requested them from the city.

The California Public Records Act (PRA) requires municipalities like West Hollywood to answer public information requests within 10 days. Under certain circumstances, cities can request one additional 14-day extension period.

The city has now granted itself four extensions periods — in possible violation of California law.  

THE REQUEST

On November 25, 2023 — two days after the house fire — WEHOonline requested from the City Clerk’s Office the following types of records produced Jan. 1, 2023 and thereafter:

  • Correspondences: All forms of communication, including emails, letters, faxes, and any other correspondence, whether internal or external, related to the specified property.
  • Photos and Videos: Any photographs, videos, or visual records related to the property, its condition, any incidents, or inspections that have taken place.
  • Notices: All notices, including but not limited to violation notices, safety warnings, or any other official communications issued by or received by the city in relation to the property.
  • Memos: Internal memos, briefing notes, or any written communications discussing the property, its status, or related issues.
  • Complaint Forms: Copies of all complaint forms or records of complaints received or processed by the city regarding the property.
  • Communications with Specific Individuals and Entities: Any and all communications involving the following: 

Danny Rivas (director of Community Safety)Community Safety DivisionLos Angeles County Fire DepartmentLos Angeles County Sheriff’s DepartmentThe city’s code enforcement divisionAdam Eramian (Public Safety Commissioner who warned the city of the potential fire hazard)Rick Watts (member of the public who warned the city of the potential fire hazard)
Any members of the public in relation to the property

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The city acknowledged receipt of the request the same day, kicking off the 10-day countdown.

Then on November 27, the city requested a clarification regarding which departments and divisions we wanted information from, which we provided them the same day. 

In our reply, we listed the following divisions and departments:

  • City Manager
  • Administrative Services
  • Community Safety
  • Economic Development Department
  • Planning & Development Services
  • Building and Safety
  • Business Development
  • Neighborhood and Business Safety
  • Property Development

Then on December 12, we received the first notice that the city would be delayed in providing us what we asked for:

The City has searched for and located records responsive to your request.  Given the scope of your request, the City needs additional time to search for additional records and review for disclosability under the PRA. The City anticipates producing nonexempt responsive records to you by December 29, 2023, sooner if it is able to.  Likewise, the City will notify you in writing if it needs more time.

On December 29, we got another one:

As noted in the City’s December 12, 2023 correspondence to you, the scope of your request is broad.  The City’s has retrieved a voluminous amount of records in its search, which it is currently reviewing for disclosability under the PRA. Given the scope of your request, the City needs additional time to search for additional records and review for disclosability under the PRA. The City anticipates producing nonexempt responsive records to you by January 12, 2024, sooner if it is able to.  Likewise, the City will notify you in writing if it needs more time.

Then on January 12, we received this update:

The City appreciates your patience on this matter. As noted in the City’s December 12, 2023 correspondence to you, the scope of your request is broad. The City’s has retrieved a voluminous amount of records in its search, which it is currently reviewing for disclosability under the PRA. Given the scope of your request, the City needs additional time to search for additional records and review for disclosability under the PRA. The City anticipates producing nonexempt responsive records to you by January 26, 2024, sooner if it is able to.  Likewise, the City will notify you in writing if it needs more time.

This time, the deadline day (January 26) passed without any word from the city.

I replied to their most recent email:

January 26 has passed with no records produced and no notice that you need additional time.

The next day, Saturday Jan. 27, the city sent us this:

The City appreciates your patience on this matter. As noted in the City’s December 12, 2023 correspondence to you, the scope of your request is broad. The City’s has retrieved a voluminous amount of records in its search, which it is currently reviewing for disclosability under the PRA. Given the scope of your request, the City needs additional time to search for additional records and review for disclosability under the PRA. The City anticipates producing nonexempt responsive records to you by February 9, 2024, sooner if it is able to.  Likewise, the City will notify you in writing if it needs more time.

Tuesday morning, I wrote the City Clerk directly:

Good morning Melissa, I was hoping you might be able to tell me a little more about the progress of my 1030 North Sierra Bonita public information request. It seems like it’s been held up in the legal review process for an unusually long time  —  is this something that has happened in the past with other requests? Are there any documents that aren’t as confidential or requiring of legal review that you can release sooner? Is there any absolute deadline that the city is required to adhere to, or can you give me a ballpark idea of when it might be ready? Any information regarding what’s going on will be very helpful for us in providing the public with factual updates about a process that is poorly understood — and help us to dispel the growing impression among readers that our request is being slow-walked. Thank you very much. 

On Wednesday, the City Clerk replied:

Good afternoon Brandon,

Thank you for your patience.

The California Public Records Act requires that we respond to a Public Records Request within 10 days indicating if the agency has records responsive to the request.  At that time, the agency may produce records or indicate that additional time is required to gather and review responsive documents.  Typically, the extension is 14 days.  At that time,  the City will give an estimated date as to when the documents will be produced, usually within a few weeks. There are times when there a voluminous number of records, so the agency elects to produce documents on a rolling basis.

You submitted your Public Records Request on November 25, 2023.

Records Requested: Dear City Clerk, Pursuant to the California Public Records Act (Government Code Section 6250 et seq.), I hereby request access to and copies of all physical and electronic records concerning the property located at 1030 Sierra Bonita, West Hollywood. This request encompasses, but is not limited to, the following: Correspondences: All forms of communication, including emails, letters, faxes, and any other correspondence, whether internal or external, related to the specified property. Photos and Videos: Any photographs, videos, or visual records related to the property, its condition, any incidents, or inspections that have taken place. Notices: All notices, including but not limited to violation notices, safety warnings, or any other official communications issued by or received by the city in relation to the property. Memos: Internal memos, briefing notes, or any written communications discussing the property, its status, or related issues. Complaint Forms: Copies of all complaint forms or records of complaints received or processed by the city regarding the property. Communications with Specific Individuals and Entities: Any and all communications involving the following: ● Danny Rivas ● Community Safety Division ● Los Angeles County Fire Department ● Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department ● The city’s code enforcement division ● Adam Eramian ● Rick Watts ● Any members of the public in relation to the property Date Range: The request covers all relevant documents created, modified, or transmitted since January 1, 2023. I request that these records be provided in an electronic format if available. If certain records can only be accessed in person, please inform me of this, as well as any potential costs associated with the reproduction of these documents. Please note that if my request is denied in whole or part, I ask that you provide a written explanation for the refusal, including a reference to the specific statutory exemption upon which the denial is based. Thank you for your attention to this request. Please do not hesitate to contact me if you require clarification or further information to facilitate the processing of this request. Sincerely, Brandon Ross Garcia wehoonline.com

In reviewing GovQA, I note that on November 27th you amended the Request to include additional departments/divisions including City Manager, Administrative Services, Community Safety, Economic Development, Planning and Development Services, Building and Safety, Business Development, Neighborhood and Business Safety, and Property Development. 

Rocio Martinez, the City’s Records Management Officer, emailed you indicating that, “As noted in the City’s December 12, 2023 correspondence to you, the scope of your request is broad.  The City’s has retrieved a voluminous amount of records in its search, which it is currently reviewing for disclosability under the PRA. Given the scope of your request, the City needs additional time to search for additional records and review for disclosability under the PRA. The City anticipates producing nonexempt responsive records to you by January 12, 2024, sooner if it is able to.  Likewise, the City will notify you in writing if it needs more time”.

I further note in my review of GovQA that the time was extended to January 26, 2024 and subsequently to February 9, 2024.  We make every effort to timely respond to Public Records Requests; however, there are times when it does take longer than anticipated to gather and review documents.  In response to your request, the City has gathered approximately 300 distinct records, and all of that information needs to be reviewed to determine what is public information and what must be withheld or redacted because it is not to be released under the PRA.  This review can take time.

I am working diligently with my staff to provide responsive records to you on or before February 9th.

THE LAW

The California Public Records Act (PRA), enacted in 1968, is designed to ensure transparency and accountability in government operations in California. It grants the public the right to access records held by state and local government agencies. These records encompass a wide range, including documents, emails, and other communications created, owned, used, or retained by government agencies. Public records are broadly defined under the PRA, encompassing all forms of writing related to public business, irrespective of their physical form. The Act also includes electronic records, thereby covering digital documents and emails.

VALID REASONS

The PRA allows for several exemptions where agencies can legally withhold records. These exemptions aim to strike a balance between public access, individual privacy, and efficient government functioning. Valid reasons for withholding records include:

  1. Records tied to pending litigation.
  2. Personnel files.
  3. Investigative records.
  4. Draft documents.
  5. Confidential legal advice.
  6. Practical challenges like needing to gather records from different locations, reviewing extensive records, coordinating with other agencies or internal departments, or needing to compile data or create specific reports for data extraction.

UNJUST NONCOMPLIANCE

Unjustifiable extensions for responding to public records requests are not permitted under the PRA. The Act stipulates an initial 24-day response period (10 days, with a possible 14-day extension) for agencies. Extensions beyond this period must be justified based on valid reasons related to the nature of the request. Unjustifiable reasons include internal bureaucratic delays, continuous extension requests without clear rationale, or intentional delays, particularly if the records are readily accessible or the request is uncomplicated.

If an agency unjustifiably denies access to records, the requester can pursue legal action, and courts may order the release of improperly withheld records. Failure to comply with the PRA in a timely manner can lead to significant consequences for the municipality, including the imposition of legal costs and attorney fees on the municipality, along with potential reputation damage.

 

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Dicks Street Stalker
Dicks Street Stalker
24 days ago

Of course. Ms. Crowder is in cahoots with all of those low life individuals mentioned in the whistleblower articles. She has zero credibility and minimal credentials to boot. Birds of a feather flock together. The fact that city council does nothing most likely indicates that they too lack ethics and receive kick backs from their constituency. What a folly. Keep requesting records, Larry!

NoSuprise
NoSuprise
26 days ago

Maybe that’s why all the shredders were working overtime and City Hall was basically shut down for a morning…. I mean really. If the paperwork doesn’t exist then…sorry no docs…and the City employee email retention is what… 30 days then dump.. but most the time you have to clean and dump your mail because your entire mailbox is so limited in space….keeps things “clean” and there really are no file drawers…oh and the shared drives are constantly max’d…so I have heard.

More Questions Than Answers
More Questions Than Answers
27 days ago

Shocking but not surprising as a similar well articulated request based on information provided at a City Council Meeting regarding a Planning Commussion Decision was answered by “we are unable to locate any such information”. The point was public statements were apparently made off the cuff with the intention of suggesting credibility but were actually based on no certifiable information whatsoever.

Process
Process
27 days ago

The city requesting clarity on which department you’re requesting said public records from is a way to trick you. Your request should have been sent to all departments and divisions and they would know what to provide. It’s not surprising to know you did not receive the records considering that Danny Rivas oversees those contracts and the Code Compliance Division. There is no transparency with him and if those records show his incompetence then he is most likely trying to clean that up with the city attorney before releasing those records. Welcome to our world as regular staff. Where there… Read more »

lonis
lonis
27 days ago

wow
imagine that

the hypocrisy of the media here to not like allll the information not being given as they labeled any opposing pov to their government instructed mantra to help lead this nation to a left lead dictatorship that they (laughingly) accused bad orangeman of attempting

ENOUGH ALREADY
ENOUGH ALREADY
27 days ago

GET A NEW CITY ATTORNEY!

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