The other day Sheriff Billy Honsal stood up before the Board of Supervisors and gave board members something of a scolding.
The topic was an upcoming budget shortfall. His department stood at risk. There had been some talk in the air of allocating some hotel tax money to the arts and to community theater, as the county had hinted it would do in its ballot measure last summer, and whether or not that was what triggered him Honsal wanted to throw some ice water on the proceedings.
“I don’t feel the desperation that you all should be displaying here,” he told board members.
Now, the budget shortfall is indeed going to cause some pain in county government. That is true. But when I heard the sheriff talk about “desperation,” I thought: Desperation? My dude, didn’t your office just hand over $4,562.50 of the budget to our lawyer for no reason?
I checked. It had.
Here’s the story, which you should know because it involved your money and it says something about how your government works. Or how it can work, at times.
Back in December 2021, the county Office of Emergency Services announced that it had partnered with a private company called Zonehaven. Working with the company, the Office of Emergency Services divided the county up into 300 or so “zones” for emergency service purposes. In the event of fire or flood or tsunami, residents could go to the Zonehaven map and find out their live evacuation status, or they could get text message alerts tied to their particular zone. Pretty cool!
Because I collect geographic information that may be useful to our reporting, I wrote the Sheriff’s Office, which runs the Office of Emergency Services, to say: Hey, could you send me a copy of that map data?
And I was kind of surprised at the answer, which was: No, we will not send you that data. It was surprising because geographic data maintained by the government is, pretty unambiguously, a public record. It belongs to the public. The county itself maintains a web page where you can download all sorts of this kind of data whenever you like.
I filed a formal request under the California Public Records Act. About a month and a half later, the county finally responded. Again I was denied. I was told that giving the Outpost the data could put the community at serious risk — could, in fact, “result in otherwise preventable injury, loss of life, and/or damage to property and/or environment.” The fear, apparently, was that the Outpost would take the map we had requested and use it to make our own version of Zonehaven to compete with the Office of Emergency Services — and that our own, hypothetical competing version of Zonehaven wouldn’t be as up-to-date as the real Zonehaven in the event of an emergency, and therefore people would die.
This was ridiculous for a couple of reasons. One: We had no intention of building our own Zonehaven-killer, and the data we were requesting wouldn’t have allowed us to if we did. We only wanted to know how the zones were divvied up on the map, which we could use — just as an example — to figure out about how many people would be evacuated, in the event that a zone were evacuated. We didn’t ask for real-time information about which zones were under evacuation orders or not, and we didn’t want that information. The Sheriff’s Office was correct: The real Zonehaven works great for that purpose, and if we want people to have the most up-to-date information, which we do, that is where we will point people.
The second reason it was ridiculous, as the Office of Emergency Services would demonstrate a few months later, is that it didn’t really care about having out-of-date information out there in circulation. During the Willow Creek fires last summer it slapped Zonehaven screenshots all over social media, where a user might stumble over them days or weeks after the fact. They’re still there. (See here, here, etc.)
After the county turned me down with this excuse, I requested the same map data from six other California counties who had contracted with Zonehaven. One misunderstood the request and sent a PDF instead, one never wrote back, but the other four sent it straight over with no fuss at all. That was enough.
So that’s when I got my lawyer involved, which meant that the county had to get its lawyers involved, which meant that the Board of Supervisors had to discuss the issue in closed session, which meant god knows how much staff time spent on the issue.
Finally, at some point in the chain — I don’t know where — some cooler head prevailed and persuaded everyone that the law was what it was, and they’d do best to cut their losses before going to trial. Fourteen months after we first asked for the data the county gave use everything we’d asked for, without restriction, and it wrote our lawyer a check for $4,562.50 to pay for his time and expenses.
How much is $4,500? If you look at it one way — the way county government looks at it — it’s almost nothing at all. It wouldn’t do anything to close the budget gap that Honsal was talking about. It’s about .02 percent of the Sheriff’s Office’s annual budget, or about .002 percent of the county’s annual general fund revenues. You wouldn’t think twice about throwing away .02 percent of your annual income on a whim. Maybe, if you’re like some people, you’d think even less of it if the money you were throwing away didn’t belong to you in the first place. If you were just the custodian of that money.
Look at it the other way, though — the way we citizens look at it — and $4,500 is a decent chunk of change. It’s about a month’s worth of wages for a beginning correctional officer in the county jail, or about two months of an in-home support services worker for the county’s disabled. A community theater company could do a lot with $4,500.
Maybe more to the point: $4,500 is about half again as much as my family pays in property tax in a year. Probably your family pays somewhere near the same. County government only gets a small percentage of our property tax. So think of that: County government took the property taxes it received from four or five of us this year, and it pissed it away on just this one petty and imperious and, finally, wrong effort to withhold public records. And you never would have known about it were I not writing this now.
There’s a third way to look at it, and that is from the perspective of the great Paul Nicholas Boylan, our bulldog-like attorney, who was just honored with a well-deserved lifetime achievement award from the Northern California Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. For Boylan, $4,500, minus expenses, equals not such a bad bit of work. He’s done it up and down the state for 30 years, including several times in Humboldt County, and he’s going to keep doing it because it’s a gas. “It’s fun when they underestimate you,” Boylan tells the SPJ. “It’s fun creating attitude adjustments.”
And thank god he keeps at it, because there is sometimes a tendency for some people in government service to forget which way this is all supposed to work. You get in there, you make a career, you climb the ladder, you build your own little fiefdom … after a while, you don’t serve. You rule. This is the attitude that the Boylans of the world come along and adjust. We need a hundred more of him.
Do you think the county learned anything from this episode? I hope it did. Probably it didn’t. But now you know, at least, and maybe when you next talk to your representative on the Board of Supervisors — or the city council, or the school board, or etc. — you could put in a word. You could say: I know it’s not a lot for you, especially since its not yours, but could you please put aside your pride, follow the law, remember who you work for … and quit blowing our tax money on LoCO’s lawyer?