City Settles Lawsuit Over LaBonge Doc Destruction

Boxes filled with records designated for destruction in January 2016 at Piper Technical Center, the location where city documents are sent for destruction or archival. Photo: Allison B. Cohen.

The city of Los Angeles settled a lawsuit September 20th filed by the First Amendment Coalition regarding the non-profit’s civil complaint that the city had illegally destroyed public records. As part of the settlement, the city has agreed to preserve city records for at least two years.

The San Rafael, CA based organization’s lawsuit was filed in 2016, after it was revealed former Los Angeles City Councilmember Tom LaBonge ordered at least 113 boxes of documents from his office be destroyed in the final weeks of his term in 2015.

“It’s a victory for transparency in Los Angeles,” said the coalition’s Executive Director David Snyder of the settlement. “We think [the settlement] will prevent the destruction of records,” in the future.

According to court documents, the city’s argument was that California law does not specify public records must be retained.

City attorneys also argued only department heads, like those for the city’s department of Recreation and Parks, police and fire, for example, must follow state rules regarding destroying or altering public records, not publicly elected officials.

The city also argued the notion of keeping every single record for years was unruly and impossible to manage, asking in court documents, is the “[c]ity liable if one of its thousands of employees deletes an email or throws away a scrap of paper?»

The issue of LaBonge’s order to destroy so many documents was felt most by his successor current Los Angeles City Councilmember David Ryu.

Soon after Ryu took office in July of 2015, some close to him indicated there was not a scrap of paper left behind by outgoing LaBonge. Additionally, they said, little communication, if any, occurred during the transition between the two lawmakers.

Ryu, considered a long shot when his campaign kicked off, defeated LaBonge’s former Chief of Staff Carolyn Ramsay.

In the fall of 2015, a motion by Ryu was approved by the Los Angeles City Council to create a protocol for the orderly transitions between city elected officials and “to ensure that our city prioritize[s] transparency and access to information,” he said in a released statement regarding the settlement.

Los Feliz resident Stephanie Scher along with her husband Michael Miller, both former city attorneys for multiple cities in Southern California who have spoken out against LaBonge’s actions and have worked to get other agencies like the Los Angeles District Attorney’s office and the California State Attorney General involved in the issue, said, “We are pleased to see the city of Los Angeles is going to comply with state law and its too bad it took litigation to get them to do so.”

While Scher said such a settlement is better than nothing at all, she said the city’s interpretation of state law is flawed.

“City councilmembers can’t unilaterally destroy documents,” she said. “The city owns the document, not the councilmember.”

According to Los Angeles municipal code, the city clerk is responsible for the retention and destruction of public records, including those “of a public official … existing at the termination or expiration of a public official’s term of office.”

“An argument that city councilmembers are not covered by this is just silly,” Scher said. “It makes no sense that a councilmember can do whatever he wants with city documents.”

As part of the settlement, the city will pay the coalition’s $20,000 in attorney fees and promised the organization it would consult with the non-profit if it wants to change any of its rules for records retention and destruction over the next five years.

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