Representatives from the Latino rights organization PODER filed a Public Records Act request this week demanding copies of any City Hall emails, written communications, and web searches involving councilmembers Frank Hotchkiss and Dale Francisco, the Santa Barbara News-Press, and the Minutemen, a militant organization dedicated to strict border patrol. The PODER request comes closely on the heels of the News-Press‘s request for similar documents involving councilmember Cathy Murillo, the News-Press, and PODER.
Murillo attended rallies in front of the News-Press organized by PODER protesting the newspaper’s use of the term “illegal” to denote immigrants in the United States without legal immigration papers. Hotchkiss and Francisco attended a counter-demonstration in support of the News-Press on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. That event was bolstered by a strong contingent of We the People Rising members — a strict border-control organization — who drove up from Orange County.
Referring to Francisco and Hotchkiss, PODER’s Catalina Treviso wrote in her request, “We are concerned about any coordination of their efforts to intimidate and harass immigrant rights supporters and Latino activists in the City of Santa Barbara.” In an accompanying press release, PODER accused the News-Press of seeking to stifle free speech by intimidation and censorship by demanding Murillo’s records.
Ad that is exactly what News-Press publisher Arthur Von Wiesenberger had said about PODER for taking public issue with the paper’s editorial embrace of the term “illegal.” In a letter published by the Minutemen, Von Wiesenberger wrote, “We will not give in to the thugs who are attempting to use political correctness as a tool of censorship to shut down this newspaper.”
City Attorney Ariel Calonne said he will provide PODER the same access to documents about Hotchkiss and Francisco that he provided the News-Press about Murillo: emails and written communications. In Murillo’s case, that amounted to two emails sent to her — one critical of her position, the other supportive.
As a practical matter, Calonne said City Hall’s Information Technology system only tracks what host sites a councilmember visits — “like bing.com,” he said — but does not record what searches the councilmembers make. As a matter of law, however, Calonne said such information is off-limits to public-records requests. The California Supreme Court has ruled that the deliberative process of elected officials involved in legislative actions is exempt.
Calonne acknowledged there are no court opinions on web search records per se, but he likened it to the privacy protections afforded library withdrawal records. “If you provided access to these kinds of records, there would be no records generated,” he argued. “No one would research anything controversial if they knew someone might be looking over their shoulder. And that would have a chilling effect on the richness of the legislative process.”
Nikki Mora, an attorney with the California Newspaper Publishers Association, said she had no argument with Calonne’s interpretation of the Public Records Act law. “His assertions of deliberative privilege are in good faith and sound,” she said. Mora had not seen PODER’s request, however, and it differs from the News-Press‘s in that it asserts a “public interest” explanation for why the records should be provided. (No such information was included by the News-Press in its request.)
PODER organizer Gabby Hernandez said she suspected Francisco and Hotchkiss might have helped put the Orange County activists in touch with the News-Press. In an interview, Hernandez said the body language between the councilmembers — whom she termed “anti-immigrant” — and some of the border-patrol advocates seemed very familiar and suggested a prior relationship. This, she argued, would illuminate their positions on immigration matters and might explain votes they’d taken, like their support of the gang injunction.
In deciding what information to release and what to keep confidential, Calonne said it’s always a balancing act between a stated public interest and the integrity of the deliberative process. Whether Hernandez’s stated motivation would suffice, Calonne stated flatly, “I don’t know,” adding he had until February 16 to decide.
Francisco said he didn’t think any such emails existed and denied having any role in organizing the demonstration involving We the People Rising, adding, “nor do I believe such activities would be consistent with my duties as a councilmember.” Francisco said he spoke with a number of people during the pro-News-Press rally, but never inquired about their political affiliation.
To the extent out-of-town border-control activists supported the News-Press, Francisco equated that with Brown Berets from Oxnard testifying before the City Council against the gang injunction. As to the charge he was “anti-immigrant” Francisco stated, “I am not opposed to legal immigration or immigrants. Like most Americans, I am strongly against illegal immigration.” Hotchkiss said he showed up to speak out for “a free press” and “against the defacing of private property.”
Prior to the first PODER rally in the front of the News-Press, vandals tagged the building with paintball pellets and sprayed political graffiti proclaiming, “The border is illegal, not the people who cross it.” PODER disavowed the graffiti. Police conducted an investigation of the crime but have exhausted all leads and put the case in the inactive file, according to police spokesperson Sgt. Riley Harwood.