Transparency in government is celebrated across the country each March with "Sunshine Week," which emphasizes the importance of open government and touts the laws and ordinances that give the public access.
Ironically, Sunshine Week 2017 ended in Pleasanton last Friday with the school district seemingly doing its utmost to keep the public in the dark about the sudden and unexplained Jan. 6 firing of Rick Rubino, its superintendent of just over six months.
The California Public Records Request Act (CPRA) is a tool to access information from government agencies, and the act includes exemptions to ensure the individual right to privacy. How much and what is exempt is subjective in some cases, as it depends upon whether an individual's privacy outweighs the public's right to know.
But then there's use of the exemptions to withhold information, which we feel is the case with our January request for records in the Rubino termination.
We asked for correspondence related to the investigation and termination of Rubino, any complaints against Rubino or the district between Sept. 1, 2016, and Jan. 9, 2017, and an "exemption log," which is a list of responsive documents that weren't produced and the exemptions asserted.
Agencies are required by law to respond to a CPRA request in 10 business days; however, a response is not production of documents. In this case, the district's first response was that they needed more time. This was expected because there is a legal responsibility to notify Rubino of the release of these documents, and time must be allowed for him to file a court action to prevent the release.
After almost three months, and at 5 p.m. on a Friday, we received 20 pages of records from the district: a copy of Rubino's employment contract (which is accessible to anyone on the district website), a copy of the notice of termination (of which we already had most details) and four partially redacted emails (which are so vague that it's not clear if or how they are related).
None of the documents gave any indication of an act so egregious that it should lead to the termination of the district's leader.
The government codes and case law cited as reasons for why the district did not release other documents to us looked impressive in the response letter, but they don't hold water. For example, attorney-client privilege may be a reason to exempt documents that provide legal advice to the district, but that privilege does not cast a blanket over all documents in the possession of the district or its legal counsel.
We don't know how many documents were withheld. The district denied our request for an exemption log, citing a 2001 Superior Court decision that concluded public agencies are not required to provide such lists because, "to require each public agency to catalog the responsive documents for each of the requests it receives ... would be burdensome and of scant public benefit."
Keeping this information from the public is not a matter of protecting Rubino's privacy or out of fear of litigation. Rubino did not try to stop the production of documents and actually submitted a statement to us.
To add insult to injury (the injury being a near-three-month wait for very little in the way of an explanation), when we asked school board president Joan Laursen for a comment about the documents and Rubino's firing, she gave us the standard response -- it's a personnel matter so we can't discuss it.
About why the school board, as it stated in January, fired a new superintendent "without cause but not without concern"? We respectfully disagree.
Pleasanton's school district is one of the best in the state in regard to student achievement, which means that there are quality teachers, administrators and staff, involved parents and engaged children. The taxpayers showed their support by approving a $270 million facilities bond measure in November.
We are all stakeholders and everyone benefits from continuing to have an excellent school district. To do that we must trust that the board and district staff are doing what is best for all the stakeholders, and trust begins with transparency.
Our staff will continue to ask why Rubino was fired. However, the bigger question is why the district continues to keep everyone in the dark.