How important is California's Public Records Act to city attorney Jan Goldsmith? Not very. Goldsmith said as much during a September 12 court hearing in the case over his refusal to turn over emails that he sent to reporters and others from his private email account.
"For me, I don't care what the [Public Records Act] required in this lawsuit, your Honor," Goldsmith told Superior Court judge Joel Wohlfeil during a hearing to have a portion of the lawsuit thrown out. "I had a practice of sending [emails] to the city account, that's why it's in the city account. That would be a very good practice for anybody in public office to do that because I don't know whether someday the courts are going to find whether that stuff in your private accounts are yours or the city's or whatever, but if you have that practice, you don't worry about it."
It was a surprise trip to court for the city attorney. It's not often that he makes the trek down the courthouse for hearings. It's even more rare that he does so accompanied by deputy city attorney Catherine Richardson as well as attorney Jacqueline Vinaccia, the outside attorney that the city council hired last month for $250,000 to defend the lawsuit.
But it wasn't Goldsmith's presence that turned heads, it was the essence of what he said. According to a court transcript, the city attorney not only said that he didn't care about following the requirements laid out in the Public Records Act, but he also admitted that his office made a mistake by failing to hand over the documents to San Diegans for Open Government's attorney, Cory Briggs.
"There was a miscommunication and there shouldn't have been. We should have clarified that. And, frankly, on the part of the city, whoever the miscommunication was, I apologize. I don't think we should have had those miscommunications," said Goldsmith.
Use of private email accounts and the proliferation of smartphones and other electronic devices have led to sticky situations for public officials across the state — especially for San Diego's city attorney, who frequently uses his private email accounts to discuss city issues with reporters, lobbyists, and others during and after regular business hours.
The practice got him in trouble when his office released some private emails to the Reader and NBC but refused to release any to Briggs. The attorney responded by filing a lawsuit. Since the lawsuit, the city attorney's office has identified over 2600 private emails that Goldsmith sent from his personal device; Briggs received only 900 redacted communications. Left out was an explanation as to why the emails had been redacted and why others were withheld.
Goldsmith’s explanation as to why the city failed to provide reasons to withhold the emails: “…over the last six years surprised me as to how many emails there were, but there were 2600. Now, 2600 emails sounds manageable when you just say 2600, but you have got to have somebody, a lawyer, a lawyer has to go through and screen each one….”
The city attorney then placed the blame on the number of requests his office received in a given year, especially from certain pesky reporters (in an email last year, a deputy city attorney stated that this correspondent had submitted 96 requests in the span of one year).
"We receive hundreds, if not thousands, of Public Records Acts requests. We have one reporter who has sent over a hundred Public Records Acts. It's very easy just to send an email [saying] ‘We want this. We want that.' A lot of them are very broad."
Goldsmith's admission that his office made a mistake by refusing Briggs’s request may have the biggest impact on the case. Agreeing to the settlement offer could have saved some face and hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars.
The settlement offer from Briggs was four-pronged. First, the city attorney would be required to admit that he and his office had made a mistake (which has already occurred); second, the city would agree to amend the municipal code to include all emails pertaining to city business, despite the address it was sent from; third, the city would agree to pay $100,000 in attorney's fees (a sum far less than what the city has spent on outside counsel to date). Last, Goldsmith would be required to officially retract statements he made about the case to the U-T.