Court Orders Release of Names and Addresses of Turf Rebate Program Participants
Recently, the Los Angeles County Superior Court ordered the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (“District”) to release the names and addresses of participants in a turf-replacement rebate program jointly administered with the Los Angeles Department of Water & Power (“DWP”). (City of Los Angeles v. Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (Feb. 26, 2016, BS157056).)
The issue arose from a May 2015 public records request from the San Diego Union-Tribune to the District. The Union-Tribune sought electronic information about the District’s turf rebate program, which the District created, funded, and operated to reduce water use by customers of local water suppliers, including DWP. The data sought by the Union-Tribune included the names and street addresses of program participants, of which approximately 20% were DWP customers.
In June 2015, the District provided a portion of the requested data to the Union-Tribune, but redacted the names of participants and provided participants’ general city block numbers rather than street addresses. After the Union-Tribune reiterated its request for names and street addresses, the District met with DWP about the request, and DWP objected to disclosure of its customers’ names and addresses. Nonetheless, the District informed DWP that it intended to release the requested records to the Union-Tribune in early August.
Shortly afterward, DWP filed a petition in Superior Court to stop the District from disclosing participants’ names and addresses. DWP argued that the disclosure of participants’ names and addresses would violate the privacy rights of its customers, as well as a provision of the California Public Records Act (“CPRA”) regarding utility customer information.
Government Code § 6254.16 states that, subject to certain exceptions, the Public Records Act does not “require the disclosure of the name, utility usage data, home address, or telephone number of utility customers of local agencies.” However, under subsection (f) of that section, this information must be made available “[u]pon determination by the local agency that the public interest in disclosure of the information clearly outweighs the public interest in nondisclosure.” DWP argued that disclosure of program participants’ names and addresses would violate § 6254.16 and that the Union-Tribune’s request did not qualify for any exceptions, including subsection (f).
In deciding whether to grant DWP’s petition, the court analyzed whether the public interest in disclosure clearly outweighed the public interest in nondisclosure. (Government Code §§ 6254.16(f).) First, in reviewing the public interest in nondisclosure, the court noted that utility customers have a legally protected privacy interest in their names and addresses. However, the court also noted that the customers voluntarily disclosed their names and addresses in order to obtain rebates, and submitted the information on an application that appeared to be published by a private third party, not a public agency. In addition, the court recognized that participants’ name and address information could be found through other means, such as county property records and that, unlike participation in welfare or social security, participation in the turf rebate program did not carry any social stigma. In light of these factors, the court concluded that the disclosure of names and addresses would not qualify as a significant invasion of privacy.
Next, in reviewing the public interest in disclosure, the court considered the importance of the public agency tasks subject to disclosure and how disclosure might provide details about those tasks. The court identified a critical public interest in scrutinizing the expenditure of public funds—here, $370 million—and concluded that disclosure of participants’ names and addresses might help the public understand the program’s effectiveness and the fairness of its administration.
Weighing the strength of these interests, the court ultimately concluded that the parties opposing disclosure of the records could not show that the public interest in nondisclosure outweighed the public interest in disclosure.
The case, even though only at the trial court level, provides not only an example of a “reverse-CPRA action,” in which a party seeks to prevent a public agency from disclosing public records, but also an example of the burden of proof necessary to block an agency from releasing utility customer information. In addition, the case provides useful insight into factors a court may consider in weighing the privacy interests. These interests include, but are not limited to, the voluntariness of providing information to a public agency, the potential social stigma associated with disclosure of information, and the availability of information from other sources.