Watchdog Disputes Costs of SMUSD Public Records Release

Interim Superintendent Loren Kleinrock characterized his release of financial expenses in response to a series of public records requests by a local watchdog as a matter of transparency and accountability, but the man who sought the records said it was an attempt to chill others like him from digging into San Marino Unified School District business.
According to documentation provided recently to The Outlook, SMUSD officials are claiming at least $51,656 in expenses related to dozens of public records requests filed this year by resident Rick Copeland, who believes district officials have been less than forthcoming about fiscal matters and policy planning. Copeland has been filing the requests and speaking publicly since January, and he recently formed a watchdog group, United Citizens for Responsible Government, among whose members he circulates information and claims via a newsletter.
The bulk of costs cited by the district — more than $26,000 — is attributed to fees charged by the claims management company that links SMUSD with the West San Gabriel Joint Powers Authority and by the law firm Cole and Huber, for handling paperwork on behalf of the JPA. The authority comprises 10 area school districts that pool resources for legal representation as a group instead of individually.
“Sometimes these requests are filed in a manner where everything under the sun is part of what’s wanted,” Kleinrock said in a phone interview. “Oftentimes, it’s overly broad and it takes an attorney to evaluate what is a proper part of the request. There are some things that, in the transactions that go forth, expose some people who incidentally are not even part of it.”
Kleinrock pointed out that personnel issues are generally not considered public and that documents can require redactions before they’re made public or need to be abridged to remove some portions.
“There are questions where we need expertise to guide [the response],” he added.
Copeland, however, said none of his requests were related to personnel matters. He said they concerned documents regarding consultants hired for the district’s facilities needs assessment and a proposed bond issue, eventually shelved; the filming of board of education meetings; paperwork regarding SMUSD’s relationship with the JPA; documents on the active-shooter drill held at San Marino High School in the spring; legal documents related to board member Chris Norgaard’s lawsuit against the district this year; and documents backing up Kleinrock’s claims at a board meeting about the spreading of misinformation about district activities.
“I don’t deny that there were 39 individual … requests, but we’re talking about six categories of documents,” Copeland said. “They were broken down into more specific requests because in the past the district has turned around and said, ‘Oh, we didn’t know you wanted that.’”
Asked about a publication’s remark that he had threatened the district with legal action, Copeland said that earlier this year he had filed a legal claim (which often precedes lawsuits) regarding the district’s use of a photograph of his daughter in a mailer promoting the proposal for the bond issue. However, he did not take the matter further and said he never threatened legal action regarding the records requests.
Linda de la Torre, the assistant superintendent who handles human resources, explained that the decision to produce records with legal assistance is made on a case-by-case basis and that the prior legal claim factored into the decision to do so in this case.
“We go through legal counsel as a matter of practice, based on that premise,” she said. “Anytime the district receives a claim, any further inquiries from that person we evaluate on a case-by-case basis to decide whether or not we need to seek counsel to process what they are requesting. When the district is faced with potential or anticipated litigation at any time, we are under obligation to reach out to our claims manager to make sure we are vetting it through legal and make sure that we’re not putting the JPA in a position to be sued.”
Copeland also took issue with listing nearly $21,000 for staff costs in the expense sheet, saying that producing documents and records is part of the job description of public bodies and shouldn’t constitute extra work.
Julie Boucher, assistant superintendent of business services, confirmed that the calculations reflected the time administrators spent collecting and preparing documents and not of money actually spent doing it.
Kleinrock added that “$51,000 doesn’t buy a new classroom, but $51,000 can be spent on other things. If anyone wants to file public records requests, it is the law and we will continue to do that. It does cost money, so that is the trade-off.”
Copeland also criticized the district’s spending more than $700 to mail boxes of documents to Cole and Huber’s office, saying he could have “bought a spot on a Southwest flight and sent it up there for cheaper than the cheapest box they mailed was.” (The firm is based in Roseville, near Sacramento.) He also questioned why so many officials were involved in collecting what he said should have been readily available information that it took two months’ worth of man-hours.
“All they needed to do was collect the documents,” Copeland said. “Why you have a total of 11 people, including two consultants, looking for the district’s documents, that raises some serious questions. Why weren’t those tasks handled by an administrative assistant? It doesn’t make any sense.”
Kleinrock justified the expense sheet as transparency on the part of the district.
“He’s entitled to his opinion,” Kleinrock said of Copeland. “Transparency is, these are the numbers and this is what they’re being used to pay for. I’m not saying yea or nay, or what he should or shouldn’t file. He’s got to do what he thinks is right, and our job is to do what we need to do. The law allows this to be filed and we have to respond to these, and that costs time and money.”
Copeland, in response to a newspaper article on the district’s reported expenses, said in his organization’s latest newsletter that Kleinrock’s comments regarding
the expenses are an attempt to portray him as “the bad guy” and also to chill others from seeking public records from the district.
“What they have done here with these alleged costs just confirms what parents have been worried about,” Copeland said. “This just reinforces that the district will attempt to retaliate against those who attempt to seek information from and ask questions about how the district is being governed.
“I could have gone to court if I wanted to get these documents faster, but as they would have been responsible for my attorney’s fees and their own fees, I did not want to bleed the general fund over this,” he added.

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