Over the past year, Sonoma County’s northern neighbor has become the latest frontier in the ongoing fight over the public’s access to government records.
Indeed, Mendocino County won national acclaim in the form of a 2023 Foilies Award, a contest administered by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) meant to “recognize the worst in government transparency.”
The reason for the honor? Last July, the county’s Board of Supervisors passed an ordinance which critics argue illegally discourages access to county documents through the California Public Records Act (CPRA). Under the new law, Ordinance 4507, the county required a deposit from the requester of between $20 to $150 per hour of staff time, which the county estimated would be spent locating or reviewing records.
“Aside from being potentially unlawful, Mendocino County’s fee ordinance is an affront to its residents. It treats all records requests as hostile, resource-wasting inquiries rather than a central mission of any public agency committed to transparency,” the EFF stated when recognizing the county’s ordinance.
In less than a year under the new law, the county assessed fees of over $76,000 on the Mendocino Voice, an online local news outlet, according to a joint statement from the First Amendment Coalition (FAC) and the ACLU of Northern California released last week.
In late April, a coalition of journalists and advocacy groups threatened to sue the county over the ordinance if it did not repeal the ordinance post haste. Perhaps bowing to pressure, the Board of Supervisors repealed the law at their Tuesday, May 9 meeting, though a few elected supervisors continued to gripe about the cost of the staff time it takes the county to fulfill formal records requests.
“We’re glad the board of supervisors repealed this law. Public records belong to everyone no matter how wealthy. Democracy depends on freedom of information, but information is not public when only the rich can afford it. We hope other counties with similar laws will listen to the public and abolish these undemocratic laws,” David Loy, FAC’s legal director, said in a statement released after the board’s meeting.
Seven other California counties—Los Angeles, Shasta, Siskiyou, Calaveras, Tuolumne, Santa Cruz and Ventura—have passed laws charging “illegal fees” for public information, according to an analysis by the FAC and ACLU of Northern California.