Open government laws continue to be a challenge for the Idyllwild Fire Protection Fire District. For months, the commission denied it violated the Brown Act and recently misinterpreted both the California Public Records Act and its own Policy 5080, Public Records Act Policy.

Although Commissioner Nancy Layton concurred at a public meeting last week that the agency did violate the Brown Act while meeting in Perris about the dispatch contract, the procedure for requesting public records is inconsistent with the state law.

During the public comment period at the Idyllwild Fire Protection Fire District’s Finance Committee meeting, Mary Zacher, owner of Mile High Country Inn, requested some information about the district’s vendors.

Layton, committee chair, told Zacher the information could be provided if she submitted a written request specifying what she wanted.

Neither the CPRA nor IFPD’s policy 5080 requires a written request to review public documents.

While a written request may benefit the requester by ensuring the accuracy of the information provided in response to the request, the CPRA states, “access to information concerning the conduct of the people’s business is a fundamental and necessary right of every person in this state.” It then simply specifies, “Public records are open to inspection at all times during the office hours of the state or local agency and every person has a right to inspect any public record.”

“You don’t have to make a request in writing but we usually recommend it just to keep a record,” said Scott Merrill, staff attorney for the California Newspaper Publishers Association.

The law does provide exemptions for disclosure of personal information if it were to create an “unwarranted invasion of personal privacy” or papers involved in active litigation.

But when Layton was told the CPRA doesn’t require a written request, she and staff responded that the district’s policy demands it.

However, the language of Policy 5080 states, “You may submit a request to inspect the record or a request for copies of the record verbally, in writing or electronically to the fire chief.”

Since Fire Chief Patrick Reitz was not at the meeting, Zacher asked who was acting chief that day and never received an answer.

While obviously frustrated with the lack of response to her records request, Zacher made several comments about a longstanding disagreement between her and Layton, who happen to be neighbors. Consequently, Layton recessed the meeting and summoned a Riverside County Sheriff’s deputy to ensure decorum at the remainder of the meeting.

Subsequently, Layton filed a civil harassment restraining order against Zacher. “Now that I am a commissioner for the Idyllwild Fire Protection District, she’s become disruptive toward me at our meetings,” she wrote in her explanation for the order.

As the meeting was closing, Layton said that during her attendance at California Special District Association’s seminar in September, she asked about the allegation that the district violated the Brown Act when a quorum of both the commission and the committee attended a meeting about the dispatch contract with the county.

“They clearly explained how it was a violation,” she said. However, the commission has no plans to revise its response to the grand jury regarding the meeting and the Brown Act. In its response to the grand jury, IFPD denied any violation of the act.