Complying The 'Word' For Success
By Kimberly K. Fu/Staff Writer
After a dismal performance on a public-records audit last year, the Vacaville Police Department rallied and made a startling comeback, bringing its A-game to this year's audit.
Garnering a pair of A's, with the most-recent audit testing both for legal compliance and customer service, the Vacaville department was one of two policing agencies in Solano County - the other being the Dixon Police Department - to achieve such high marks.
"I'm pleased, but we still have a lot to learn," Vacaville Police Chief Rich Word said.
The audit, hosted by Sacramento-based public-access watchdog group Californians Aware, sent auditors to more than 100 law enforcement agencies across the state last month to test each on the tenets of the California Public Records Act.
The previous audit had allowed for only one grade.
Word emphasized that his staff worked hard to improve - not because someone told them they had to, but because they wanted to. So, they quashed their anger over being told they had failed, he said, and set forth to do better.
In April, Word, with help from The Reporter, took CalAware up on its offer to host a public access workshop. More than 50 people from law enforcement agencies across Solano attended. The atmosphere was at times hostile, Word admitted, and praised CalAware's Terry and Emily Francke for stepping into the proverbial lion's den.
"That's courageous, I have to give it to them," he said. "They were good. They listened. They took some shots from police chiefs and others. ... We suggested a two-part audit and they listened to us."
Following the workshop, Word continued to discuss the issue with staff and city officials, at meetings with the heads of the county's policing agencies and at meetings of the California Police Chiefs Association, of which he is president.
"We've been talking about this for months, public records, what to release and what not to release," he said.
The chief and other department heads later underwent chiefs association training, sharing findings with other staff members.
Reinforcement training is planned.
Dixon police Chief Don Mort said his staff consistently receives public-access training and even attended a session the day before the most-recent audit was conducted.
Which is probably why he was not surprised that his agency did well for the second year in a row.
"I've really got good people," he said. "It was the same gal this time that did it last time. She's been with us five years and she's really great."
Though warmed by his agency's scoring, Mort expressed concern that the results of agencies who did not fare as well would be viewed in the wrong light.
"I don't think there's any law enforcement agency in the county that doesn't want to be responsive ... that goes into it to deceive the public or hide anything from the public," he said. "There's a human factor these surveys never take into account," he added, regarding the intent of those charged with safeguarding public records.
Fairfield police Capt. Rick Leonardini agreed.
Though his agency scored a D in legal compliance, it was an improvement from the agency's previous F.
"We're committed to doing this correctly," he assured. "The difference in grades shows we're trying. The big thing is, we're not trying to hide stuff. ... It shows the training paid off and it shows that we still have work to do."
The failing score earned by the Suisun City Police Department on both audits could be perceived as the department's needing improvement. It was docked by CalAware for reasons including being unresponsive to a written request and for failing to send a letter of determination within 10 days.
But like all other agency heads, Suisun City police Chief Ed Dadisho disputes the grading scale.
"As we discussed during the last CalAware audit, I completely disagree with the methodology and findings. In fact, the document faxed to me shows not only our customer service was excellent, but that the requested information was in fact provided to your staff," he wrote in an e-mail. "It is my understanding that the auditor received the information within 30 minutes of coming to the front lobby.
"For that reason, there is no need for a written response which we received a minus 10 (written response) and there was no reason for a letter of determination received within 10 days, which we received a minus 10 points. In my calculation that's a 71-percent-score based on CalAware's faulty score sheet. I am pleased with my employee's response and feel that they fully complied with a citizen's (auditors) request for information."
Solano County Sheriff Gary Stanton also was satisfied with his staff's performance on the audit. Last year, the department score a D-. This year, it scored a C, and excelled in the customer service area.
"The 'A' grade the Sheriff's Office received from CalAware for customer service is appreciated. Although law enforcement agencies may at times disagree with CalAware over the issue of public information and legal compliance, when responding to a media request for information we should always make a reasonable effort to respond in a professional and timely manner," wrote Stanton in an e-mail. "I also appreciate the fact that the Sheriff's Office has managed to obtain a 'C' grade for legal compliance from the audit tool used by CalAware to measure the performance of law enforcement and our ability to meet the media's interpretation of law.
"Unfortunately law enforcement and the media are still on opposite sides of the fence when it comes to interpreting what is and what is not public information. The good news is that we seem to be steadily closing the gap."
The Sheriff's Office likely would have had a higher grade had they found the robbery the auditor requested information on. Instead, a staffer told the auditor that there was no record of the incident. Ironically, a press release regarding the robbery, complete with a photo of one of the suspects, remains posted on the department's Web site.
Kimberly K. Fu can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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