Public exercises its right to know

Duwayne Stenger's wife gave him a nickname a few years ago: "permanent pain in the butt to the city of Modesto."

Stenger, a 65-year-old retiree, wears the title with pride. He earned it because he regularly files public records requests with the city.

He's used the California Public Records Act to dig for information on city salaries, road repairs and water billing, among other issues. To Stenger, using open government laws to peek inside City Hall is a civic duty.

"If you don't utilize public records access, you're missing out on a tremendous tool to hold your elected officials accountable for their actions," Stenger said. "We need to know who's doing what and we need to hold them accountable, because it's our money."

He's one of more than 200 people who filed such requests with the city last year.

His right to do that will be celebrated this week, when The Bee joins newspapers across the country in Sunshine Week, an annual effort to shine a light on the importance of open government and freedom of information.

Public records requests are an important tool for newspapers. The Bee last year used public records laws to access information on coun- ty employee pensions. When the Stanislaus Employees' Retirement Association refused, The Bee sued StanCERA and won release of the records.

News organizations aren't the only ones who pester agencies for information.

A look at the list of people who filed public records requests in Modesto last year shows the requests come from folks who scrawl in ballpoint pen on notebook paper and fancy law firms writing on crisp letterhead.

A large chunk of the city's public records seem to be from attorneys prepping for lawsuits. Many are from government contractors researching the competition.

A handful are from veteran watchdogs such as Dave Thomas, president of the Stanislaus Taxpayers Association, who asked for information about the city's payroll.

Here's a look at a few of the requests Modesto received:

A student at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey working on a master's thesis on homeland defense wanted a copy of the Modesto Police Department's video surveillance policy.

An intern at a weekly newspaper in Spokane, Wash., wanted to know how much water Modesto residents used from June 2008 to June 2009.

A retired computer technician from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory asked for information about Modesto's laws on medical marijuana dispensaries.

The request came from 69-year-old Ovid Mowrey of San Ramon. He said he was thinking of opening a dispensary aimed at older cancer patients who might feel uncomfortable going to dispensaries in rough neighborhoods. Mowrey researched Modesto, Walnut Creek, Stockton and Pleasanton, but dropped the idea after he got a cool reception from most cities.

A Long Beach law firm that represents the California Rifle & Pistol Association asked for all correspondence between the organization Mayors Against Illegal Guns and Mayor Jim Ridenour.

Attorney Sean Brady said his firm files such requests in most California cities to keep tabs on Mayors Against Illegal Guns. His clients perceive the group as anti-gun rights. The request to Modesto didn't turn up any communication between Ridenour and MAIG, according to the city clerk's office.

Brady said his firm's requests haven't revealed any "juicy details." But he said he keeps filing records requests because it's important for the gun advocates he represents to know that he's tracking MAIG's activities. "It's definitely a good tool for seeing what's going on and keeping the government honest," Brady said. "Lawyers love it. For clients, it's great that you can just call a government agency, submit an easy request and get the records."

Caltest Analytical Laboratory of Napa wanted to know how much Modesto pays for water quality testing at its sewer plant. Caltest's Todd Albertson said his company asked for the information so it could offer competitive pricing next time the work comes up for bid. Albertson said the requests are a routine part of doing business for contractors in the public sector.

Former Deputy City Manager Paul Baxter asked the city to dig up records from 1956 that showed how the city came to own Moose Park. Baxter worked with Mary Grogan, the late parks advocate, on the research.

The two were worried about a city proposal to sell Moose Park. (That didn't happen.) As a former city employee, Baxter said he was used to being on the more adversarial end of public records requests. As a private citizen, he found the process smooth and easy.

Baxter said others shouldn't take their right to public documents for granted.

"Government is us, government is not separate from us," Baxter said. "We formed this country and this state and this community for the purpose of providing services in the collective sense, and for that service to be viable it needs to responsive."

Bee staff writer Leslie Albrecht can be reached at or 578-2378. Follow her at BeeReporter.

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