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Small town politics, big time controversy

by Chris Hinyub, published

California is mired in debt, municipalities are having trouble delivering public services, and cash-strapped bureaucracies are taking all sorts of unique measures to ensure their survival. The town of Discovery Bay is no exception, with a big fish of its own to fry: someone has been ordering copies of public records, anonymously, and they've performed this dastardly act four times!


The Discovery Bay Community Services District board has come up with a solution to this unchecked malevolence by voting this week to ban cash transactions for all town services. Beginning in May, residents who want to pay a water bill or even make a park reservation will have to do so with either check, debit or credit card, or money order. Oh, and if you decide to request a public document, your identity is subject to publication if you rub the town board the wrong way.


The preceding was outlined in a recent Contra Costa Times article detailing the new rule. Board members actually deny that the measure was implemented to prevent anonymous public record requests. The fact that everyone who tries to retrieve a copy of a public document can now be outed is just a “side benefit” says General Manager Rick Howard. Directors Mark Simon, Chris Steele and Kevin Graves say the no cash policy was meant to ensure the safety of town clerks at risk on bank runs and to save the district time and money.


     “The main concern is the safety of our employees and the second is the efficiency with which we do our jobs," Graves said.


Many residents feel this is a ludicrous pretext as the directors even admit that thieves have never been a problem. Resident Don Flint told the Times that the district began receiving anonymous requests for public records last fall. The board, peeved by its inability to identify the requester(s), instituted the cash ban to limit access to public information, Flint says.


Former director David Piepho, who retired from the board in December (a month after the no-cash policy was introduced) confirms Flint's suspicion that the change was designed to eliminate anonymous requests, but he feels it is an appropriate response to inappropriate and “antagonistic” actions by residents.


     "You'll find that a lot of the rules that the CSD deals with are created because of the same four or five antagonists," he said. "They're made because people acted in such a way that a rule needed to be made."


Going a step further than his colleagues, board member Brian Dawson said the anonymous requests for record copies were "cowardly" and indicative of "bad intentions.”  According to officials, Discovery Bay is home to a group of residents who are “uncommonly antagonistic toward local government.” Piepho thinks the new rule will take one more “weapon” out of their arsenal.


State law dictates that public records requests must be answered within 10 days. Anonymous requests may still be made by residents who don't require copies and instead inspect public records in person where no fee is assessed.  It's only a matter of time before someone seeks to challenge this city policy by falling back on federal legal tender laws protecting those who do not wish to have a bank account and instead want to discharge with cash “all debts public and private.”

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