Using Constitutional Amendment, San Diego Paper Sues for Hospital Records

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By: E&P Staff

The San Diego Union-Tribune is suing a local public hospital district for access to public records in one of the first uses of a state constitutional amendment California voters approved last fall, the paper reported Friday.

The complaint, filed Thursday in San Diego County Superior Court, seeks the appointment calendar of Tri-City Healthcare District?s chief executive officer and access to a severance agreement between Tri-City and a former hospital administrator who is now an elected board member.

The calendar is that of Tri-City CEO Arthur A. Gonzalez, who came to the hospital from Shreveport, La., in 1998. The severance agreement involves David Tweedy, a clinical psychologist who was Tri-City Medical Center’s director of behavioral health from 1998 to 2001. He was elected to the hospital district’s board of directors in November.

The newspaper is asking a judge to direct Tri-City Healthcare District, operator of the 397-bed medical center in Oceanside, Calif., to release copies of both records. The hospital is partially funded by property taxes.

“This is the first case I am aware of that will actually go to court since Proposition 59 was added to the constitution last November,” Al Wickers, a Los Angeles attorney who filed the complaint on behalf of The Copley Press Inc., parent company of the Union-Tribune, told the paper.

Called the “Sunshine Amendment” by First Amendment groups, Proposition 59 was touted as a way to strengthen public access to government deliberations and records, the paper explained.

Among other things, the statute says, “The people have the right of access to information concerning the conduct of the people’s business, and, therefore, the meetings of public boards and the writings of public officials and agencies shall be open to public scrutiny.”

The measure passed Nov. 2 with 83.4 percent of the vote statewide. Days later, the California First Amendment Coalition in San Rafael filed a formal request for Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s appointment calendars for one year.

The governor responded two weeks later that he would provide the calendars. Although some appointments were blacked out, the governor provided more than 350 pages to the coalition in December.

Other state officials, including Attorney General Bill Lockyer, have also turned over appointment calendars upon request.

“No one tried to do what it sounds like your local hospital is trying to do,” Peter Scheer, the coalition’s executive director, told the Union-Tribune. “Everybody complied to a greater or lesser extent.”

Responding to the Union Tribune’s written requests dating back to Dec. 3, attorneys for Tri-City have said that although Tweedy is no longer a hospital employee, his records are a personnel matter and cannot be disclosed.

A hospital official declined to comment to the paper.

“We never comment on any kind of legal action,” Allen Coleman, the hospital’s vice president of strategic services, said yesterday.

Hospital attorneys have cited a 14-year-old case brought by Times Mirror Co. against then-California Gov. George Deukmejian, which also involved appointment calendars. The court decision allowed public agencies that held such records the right to argue whether denying access to certain documents was more beneficial to the public than disclosing them.

It is the interpretation of this case in light of the voter-approved Proposition 59 that will be debated in the Union-Tribune court filing.

Tri-City will have 30 days to respond, and Wickers said a hearing could be scheduled by mid-April. He said state law requires courts to handle such public-interest cases expeditiously.

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