Records attorney: City must disclose rally cop count

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Officers patrol the Hollister Motorcycle Rally in this July 2008 file photo. Officials contend that releasing the overall number of police employed for the event could endanger safety.

Although the city attorney and police chief have contended that
disclosing the number of law enforcement personnel employed at the
annual biker rally could endanger the community’s safety, an open
records expert told the Free Lance today that the public has a
right to the information and he said there’s no

statutory or case authority

supporting their stance.
HOLLISTER

Although the city attorney and police chief have contended that disclosing the number of law enforcement personnel employed at the annual biker rally could endanger the community’s safety, an open records expert told the Free Lance today that the public has a right to the information and he said there’s no “statutory or case authority” supporting their stance.

“That’s ridiculous. They (officers) are obviously present at the event. It’s not as if they’re in hiding,” said Jim Ewert, an open records attorney for the California Newspaper Publishers Association. “That’s exactly what the Supreme Court said the public is entitled to.”

That California Supreme Court decision in 2007 concluded that government agencies must reveal specifically how tax dollars are spent in regard to public personnel costs.

Rally security costs, meanwhile, have risen in recent years and reached $360,000 in 2008.

When told of Ewert’s contention today, Hollister City Attorney Stephanie Atigh argued that the Supreme Court decision doesn’t relate to Hollister’s question over releasing personnel numbers because it’s “for a particular event, which is very different.”

Atigh and Police Chief Jeff Miller had responded in October to a Free Lance public records request for both the overall cost of each recent Hollister Motorcycle Rally as well as the number of officers employed at the events. The city disclosed the overall rally security costs from 2004 to 2008, but Miller contended that the public safety factor outweighs any gain from disclosing the data, and Atigh’s written response to the October request stated how the numbers “could be used to disrupt future rallies and endanger the safety of the community and the law enforcement officers.”

Future rallies, with Tuesday night’s 4-0 council decision to cancel the city’s sanctioning of the event, are in doubt. Despite a current non-sanctioning for 2009, however, Ewert said city officials have no legal basis to withhold the information even if there is an official event.

“We’re dealing in an era of very limited resources,” Ewert said. “The public’s entitled to understand how the city allocates its funds for its safety efforts.”

Ewert said there were no applicable exemptions in the law and noted how the only potential consideration is the “catch-all” exemption, which broadly states that the “public interest in nondisclosure clearly outweighs” the benefit from a release. Ewert, however, pointed out that in such cases, agencies are required to “interpret narrowly in favor of public access.”

“I don’t think they meet that burden,” he said.

The Free Lance today resubmitted the public records request for recent rallies’ personnel numbers. Atigh said she would examine the document before responding to it. Asked if she expects a reversal on the prior stance, she responded: “I don’t know. That’s what I’ve got to find out.”

Miller could not be reached immediately before publication.

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