A Superior Court judge on Tuesday ordered the Los Angeles Department of Water & Power to produce documents responsive to a Public Records Act request made 18 months ago by the San Diego County Water Authority. Judge James Chalfant ruled that LADWP “…did not produce the responsive documents on its own initiative, whether before or during the lawsuit.” LADWP has 30 days to turn over the documents based upon a set of search terms provided by the Water Authority.
Because an award of fees to a prevailing party in a California Public Records Act action is mandatory, and based on his finding that “some significant portion of documents would not have been produced without the lawsuit,” Judge Chalfant also ruled that the Water Authority is entitled to recover reasonable attorney's fees.
On Oct. 28, 2011, the Water Authority sent Public Records Act requests to the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California and several of its member agencies, including LADWP. The Water Authority was seeking to learn more about secret meetings of a group of public agency managers who appeared to be coordinating votes of the MWD board of directors on water rates and other important matters. Other public agencies that responded to the Water Authority's request produced thousands of pages of responsive documents. Those documents confirmed the existence of a group of public agencies that began meeting in 2009 to secretly discuss and reach agreement on MWD issues.
In his ruling, Judge Chalfant found that LADWP:
“…did not produce the responsive documents on its own initiative, whether before or during the lawsuit. The request was made in November 2011. DWP produced documents pursuant to two initial searches, a rolling production of 550 pages before the lawsuit was filed in April 2012, and another production shortly before the July 2012 trial setting conference. At the conference, DWP informed the court that production was complete. It was not. DWP now has performed two more searches which occurred only at the prodding of, and objection by, Water Authority, and a third will be required by court order.”
As to attorney's fees, Judge Chalfant ruled:
“Water Authority is entitled to reasonable attorneys’ fees because some significant portion of documents would not have been produced without the lawsuit.”
“The Water Authority has been more than patient with LADWP – trying for more than a year to assist it to meet its legal obligations under the Public Records Act,” said Kelly Aviles, special counsel for the Water Authority, with the Law Offices of Kelly Aviles, in La Verne, Calif. “When the California Legislature enacted the Public Records Act, it expressly declared that access to information concerning the conduct of the people’s business is a fundamental and necessary right of every person in this state.”
The records produced by other public agencies showed that LADWP’s top management was very active in the secret meeting group. They also show that LADWP spent ratepayer money to fund its activities, which included an “economic study” it planned to hold out to the public as an “independent” study of the Water Authority's rates and water transfer agreement with the Imperial Irrigation District.
While other agencies produced thousands of pages of responsive documents, LADWP had only produced 550 pages before the lawsuit was filed by the Water Authority in April 2012 to force the production of records.
In his ruling on Tuesday, Judge Chalfant ordered LADWP to produce additional public records within 30 days based upon a set of search terms to be provided by the Water Authority, and to produce a privilege log for any documents withheld from disclosure. A hearing is set for July 18 to issue a final judgment in the case.
To read court documents related to the case, go to www.sdcwa.org/water-authority-v-city-la-department-water-and-power-court-documents.