CORRECTION: Expert Says: LaBonge & City May Have Violated State Law

Former Los Angeles City Councilmember Tom LaBonge is seen here at a community meeting while he was still in office. Lawyers specializing in public records issues have requested an investigation into the former council member's destruction of public records in the months and weeks prior to his leaving office. Photo: Allison B. Cohen

Former Los Angeles City Councilmember Tom LaBonge is seen here at a community meeting while he was still in office. Lawyers specializing in public records issues have requested an investigation into the former councilmember’s destruction of public records in the months and weeks prior to his leaving office. Photo: Allison B. Cohen

CORRECTION: In an interview, Los Angeles City Clerk Holly Wolcott responded she had been with the City Clerk’s office since 2004 and previously from 1987 through 1990. However, Ms. Wolcott’s position from 2004 to 2013 was with the City Clerk’s office, but not as City Clerk. In 2013 she was appointed as Interim City Clerk by Mayor Eric Garcetti and then confirmed in 2014 as the Los Angeles City Clerk.

(LOS ANGELES) The 1st Amendment Coalition today said, upon further inspection, the city of Los Angeles and former Los Angeles City Councilmember Tom LaBonge are possibly in violation of state law pertaining to the preservation of public records.

“I believe [LaBonge] probably violated one or more [California] statutes,” coalition Executive Director Peter Scheer said in an interview. Additionally, he said, “the city is in default of its obligation. . . in not having a clear-cut policy or directive that says when someone leaves a city council office, their public records must remain behind as property of the city. . . and the public.”

At issue are 113 boxes of documents LaBonge ordered destroyed from his office in the final months and weeks of his 14 years as councilmember of Los Angeles District 4.

Thirty-five boxes that were sent for destruction to an offsite city facility by LaBonge’s secretary, Juliette Durand, were salvaged and most of the contents will be made available to the public February 5 between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. City Hall, Suite 425, at LaBonge’s successor’s office, Los Angeles City Councilmember David Ryu. The documents have been evaluated for redaction and release by Ryu’s staff as well as the Los Angeles City Attorney, according to Ryu spokesperson Estevan Montemayor. The 35 salvaged boxes have been sitting at the Los Angeles City Attorney’s office since last July, even though Ryu’s staff indicated to the City Attorney last fall, they were searching for missing documents from LaBonge’s office.

Ryu has long been rumored to been left with nothing from the LaBonge administration when he took office July 1st. In December, he authored a motion asking the city to create transition protocol between outgoing and incoming councilmembers, of which there is currently none.

The transition between LaBonge and Ryu was especially acrimonious as Ryu beat LaBonge’s former Chief of Staff Carolyn Ramsay in a May runoff election last year for LaBonge’s seat.

Last week, Los Angeles City Clerk Holly Wolcott said the city does not have a policy for keeping or destroying documents by elected officials, including the Mayor, whether or not they are still in office or leaving it, as LaBonge was. She did say, however, records produced by city departments and other officers must be kept for a length of time and can only be shredded with approval by the Los Angeles City Attorney and the Los Angeles City Council.

But according to sections of the Los Angeles Municipal Code regarding record retention and destruction, such protections of records kept and produced by elected officials do exist.

According to Section 12.2, the City Clerk is to manage the keeping and destruction of public records by city departments but also “available records from all departments, including those public records of a public official. . . existing at the termination or expiration of a public official’s term of office.”

A request for an interview today with Wolcott was not returned.

Wolcott last week claimed a distinction between departments and city officers when compared to elected officials.

But according to section 200 of the Los Angeles City Charter, officers of the city of Los Angeles includes elected councilmembers and as such they are required to comply with both state law and the city’s own records retention and destruction procedures.

Both Wolcott and the city’s long time Records Management Officer Todd Gaydowski, said last week concerns over the destruction of the city’s public records relative to elected officials has never come up during their tenures. According to Wolcott, she has been the City Clerk since 2004 and previously from 1987 through 1990. However, a historical list dating to 1950 of the Los Angeles City Clerks, provided today by Gaydowski at the request of the Ledger, indicates Wolcott has only been the City Clerk since 2013 when she was appointed the position by Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti.

A request for clarification by Gaydowski of the historical list of Los Angeles City Clerks was not returned on deadline.

Several Los Angeles attorneys, who specialize in public records issues, as well as one neighborhood council officer have asked for an investigation of LaBonge’s actions as well as the city’s.

“We, the Los Feliz Neighborhood Council, only send official paperwork by U.S. mail and now we’re hearing hundreds of hours of volunteer work might have been tossed into a shredder on a whim?,” said Mark F. Mauceri, the council’s Vice President of Administration. “Someone needs to look into this and find out what really happened and if any laws were broken. If true, trust, at the least, has certainly been broken.”

An immediate request for comment from Mayor Eric Garcetti’s office was not answered. Multiple calls to the City Attorney’s office and the State Attorney General on the issue have not been returned.

This story was updated at 5:30 p.m. with a comment from the Los Feliz Neighborhood Council’s Vice President, Mark F. Mauceri.

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