In a showdown pitting the public’s access to government records against the deliberative integrity of the legislative process, Scott Steepleton — writer and editor at the Santa Barbara News-Press — has demanded city administrators turn over Councilmember Cathy Murillo’s internet browsing records while working on council time.
Murillo has been outspokenly critical of the News-Press‘s choice to use the term “illegal” to describe immigrants in the country without proper documentation. Steepleton asked for copies of all e-mails between Murillo and the immigrant rights group PODER, which has organized several protests against the News-Press and has threatened to boycott the paper. In addition, Steepleton requested any electronic postings or searches Murillo may have made on social media outlets regarding the News-Press, as well as records of Internet searches between January 2 and 12 while using her City Hall computer.
Murillo attended the most recent demonstration, held in front of the News-Press offices on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and stood with the protestors. Murillo, a former reporter with The Santa Barbara Independent, declined to comment on Steepleton’s request, stating the council would discuss the matter as potential litigation this week in closed session.
Tom Widroe of the watchdog group City Watch objected that the discussion over release of the documents was taking place behind closed doors on the grounds of pending litigation. That same argument could be used for anything, he said.
“The question is whether the requests intrude upon the deliberative process,” said City Attorney Ariel Calonne. Courts have protected the appointment calendars and phone call records of elected office holders from Public Records Act demands. To require public officials to disclose everyone they meet with prior to rendering a legislative act, he said, could “have a chilling effect on a legislator’s ability to think clearly or creatively.”
In that context, it’s not clear Murillo’s actions, communications, and web searches involving PODER and the News-Press were done as part of a “legislative” process. Well before Murillo was elected to the council, she’d actively supported the boycott of the News-Press that sprang out of the prolonged internal upheaval that erupted in 2006.
The News-Press later sued her husband, David Pritchett, then a member of the city’s Transportation and Circulation Committee, for violating California’s open government law. Pritchett and other committee members had spoken casually about a project of concern to the News-Press — a possible re-design of De La Guerra Plaza — that had not been agendized. That case settled.
Calonne said he’d render a decision on the matter by Friday.