Anyone who has navigated the California Public Records Act must have winced at the missed opportunity.
In 2014, Gov. Jerry Brown asked one of his appointees, Steve Bohlen of the Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources, for information about oil and gas wells on his 2,700-acre family ranch in Colusa County.
We wish Bohlen had given the governor the response we’ve received a thousand times from a thousand bureaucrats: Put it in writing; wait the requisite 10 days for an answer; expect delays because of the backlog of similar requests; and if the documents exist and are public, be prepared to pay copying costs.
In reality, Bohlen responded as you might expect, in so many words answering: Yes, sir. Will there be anything else, sir. Not surprisingly, Brown received the answer promptly, in the form of 51-some pages of old maps and reports, and a summation of the findings.
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The governor’s aides say any member of the public has the right to similar information, and that it’s available on the division’s website if you know how to find it. But the rest of us would not have received a rapid response, with the division director’s personal care.
A plaintiffs’ attorney who is suing the state and oil companies over the environmental impact of fracking came up with the tidbit, and the Associated Press reported it last week.
Consumer Watchdog, the Santa Monica-based advocacy operation that is aligned with plaintiffs’ lawyers, seized on the supposed scandal by blasting out a snarky email urging its followers to make similar requests of Bohlen.
We have a hard time getting worked up about the matter. Brown cares about family history and is busy. He had a question and knew who to ask to get an answer. Though the optics weren’t great, the episode seems to be less a scandal, and more a reflection about how tight Brown is.
Instead of asking for a favor from an appointee, he should have spent his own time and money dispatching some eager political aide to gather the material during a lunch hour.
Bohlen would have been a rare – and not very bright – political appointee if he had told the governor to submit the request in writing. Even so, we can dream that somewhere there is a public servant willing to school a governor on how the California Public Records Act works for the rest of us.