HANFORD — State law requires that cities have an obligation to be transparent about how they spend taxpayer dollars, and the city of Hanford is being sued for allegedly not fulfilling that obligation.
The Nevada Policy Research Institute recently filed a lawsuit in Kings County Superior Court against the city of Hanford for refusing to comply with the California Public Records Act (CPRA).
The lawsuit stems from the institute’s work on its TransparentCalifornia.com website — which publishes the pay and pension data of nearly 2.5 million California public employees from over 2,000 government agencies.
According to Transparent California research director Robert Fellner, Hanford is the only city in Kings County and the only city with a population of at least 20,000 people statewide that has “refused” to provide the basic name and salary information requested.
“The California Public Records Act is emphatic in its purpose to make public all records concerning governmental affairs,” Fellner said. “Hanford’s refusal to provide an accounting of city employees and their taxpayer-funded salaries is a clear violation of the law.”
Despite having provided the information for the 2014 year, Fellner said the city has not produced records documenting the names and wages of its employees when Transparent California requested the same information for the 2015 and 2016 years.
“It is inconceivable to claim that a city government with hundreds of employees and millions of dollars in payroll does not possess records that identify the names and wages of its employees,” Fellner said.
The lawsuit asks the court to compel Hanford to comply with the CPRA and provide a copy of records documenting city employees’ names and salary information so that it may be published online at TransparentCalifornia.com.
The lawsuit includes copies of a series of emails sent back and forth between Fellner and City Clerk Jennifer Gomez.
The emails start in June 2016, with Fellner formally requesting the names and salaries of city employees for the 2015 year. In the email, Fellner tells Gomez that the city could provide any report, record, or combination of the two that contains employee names and salaries.
Gomez emailed Fellner back, saying there was not “a single report with all the information that you have requested.”
She did, however, provide a State Controller’s Office Report that lists job titles and salaries and another report that lists all employees and their job titles.
Fellner told Gomez in an email that the information she provided was not sufficient, and she replied that the city simply had no records of the kind he was asking for and had supplied the only information she had available.
In June of this year, Fellner sent another email request to Gomez asking for the names and wages of employees for the 2016 year.
Again, Gomez provided Fellner with the State Controller’s Office Report, but told him she was not able to obtain the type of reports he requested.
“They did give us the information in 2014, which really undercuts their argument they have no way of doing so now,” Fellner said.
Fellner said he sent an email on Aug. 30 to Mayor David Ayers, City Manager Darrel Pyle, City Attorney Bob Dowd and Finance Director Paula Lofgren, relaying what he asked Gomez for and asking them to comply with law.
“We avoided litigation and spent months, if not years, trying to get them to comply because a lawsuit just penalizes Hanford taxpayers — as they are the ones responsible for paying the city’s legal fees,” Fellner said.
When contacted, both Gomez and Pyle said they could not comment on pending litigation.
City Attorney Mario Zamora said Fellner is asking for a document that doesn’t exist, and said if no such document exists, then the city is not violating the California Public Records Act.
The city does not create a document that contains what every single employee specifically earns, Zamora said, and is not legally required to compile any information together in a new document.
Zamora said the documents and information Gomez provided are sufficient for Transparent California to get the information needed; one document provides city employee names and their titles, while the other document provides how much a person with a particular title earns.
Zamora said he does not know what documents the city provided to Transparent California in 2014 that allowed the website to publish employee name and salary information.
Fellner said he hopes the matter can be resolved quickly and that “the city will embrace transparency instead of resisting it.”