Consolidated Irrigation District v. The Superior Court of Fresno County (5th Dist. April 28, 2012) __Cal.App.4th__ (Case No. F063534)
In this case, the court considered numerous issues regarding the proper interpretation of Public Resources Code section 21167.6, subdivision (e). This section of CEQA addresses the materials that should be included in the administrative record. The court also addressed the Public Records Act.
Factual and Procedural Background
In 2009, the City of Selma published a draft EIR for a proposed commercial project. The NOA indicated that project files would be maintained at the community development department. On March 1, 2010, the city council approved the project. On March 30, 2010, Consolidated Irrigation District (CID) filed a lawsuit alleging that the city had violated CEQA when it approved the project. CID elected to prepare the administrative record.
The city resisted requests by CID to obtain documents under the Public Records Act. After disputes over the procurement of certain documents for the administrative record, both parties stipulated that the record would be prepared jointly. Before certification of the record, CID requested three transcripts and 39 enumerated documents (some of which were available on the internet). Counsel for the project proponent rejected most of the requests for inclusion of additional materials in the administrative record. The city proceeded to certify the record. CID responded that the city had abandoned its agreement to cooperate in preparation of the administrative record.
CID filed a motion for leave to conduct limited discovery. CID alleged the record prepared and unilaterally lodged by the city contained few internal agency communications, and that the city had refused to produce any original correspondence, as well as other technical data and documents used in preparation of the EIR. CID also filed a motion to augment the administrative record and a petition for writ of mandate under the Public Records Act to access the city’s project files and files held by the city’s consultants. The trial court denied all three motions.
The Public Records Act
The Public Records Act provides persons with the right to inspect public records. For this act, “public records” includes “any writing containing information relating to the conduct of the public’s business prepared, owned, used, or retained by any state or local agency.” Because CID was subsequently provided with documents from the city’s primary consultant, the only documents at issue for the Public Records Act request were documents held by sub-consultants.
The appellate court determined the issue turned on whether the files of the sub-consultants were “in the possession of the agency” for purposes of the act. CID asserted that the city had the right to control these documents based on provisions between the city and the primary consultant. The appellate court disagreed with CID’s interpretation of the contract. CID also argued the city had the potential to control the documents because the sub-consultants might provide the documents to the city upon request. The appellate court determined the mere possibility of control did not establish constructive possession of the files. The appellate court affirmed the trial court’s denial of CID’s petition under the Public Records Act.
Motions for Discovery in CEQA Proceedings
The city argued CID’s motion for discovery was not allowed in a CEQA case. The appellate court cited section 21167.4, subdivision (c), which establishes the briefing schedule and expressly authorizes the trial court to extend the schedule for good cause, including the conduct of discovery. Further, past case law confirmed that courts have allowed discovery in CEQA proceedings.
Transcripts and Recordings of Hearings
While the administrative record certified and lodged by the city included transcripts of some public hearings, it did not include the transcripts for three meetings CID expressly requested. The city instead stated the transcripts did not exist, and CID could purchase a copy of the tape recordings to be transcribed. If CID did prepare transcripts from these tapes, the city informed CID it might object to inclusion of the transcripts in the administrative record as not likely to be an accurate reflection of the oral proceedings.
Section 21167.6, subdivision (e)(4), indicates that the administrative record shall include, but is not limited to, “[a]ny transcript or minutes of the proceedings” where an agency considered an environmental document for a project. The city argued no transcripts of the meetings existed. The project proponent argued that CID failed to take the reasonable step of purchasing tape recordings of the meetings and having them transcribed. Both city and the project proponent believed that section 21167.6, subdivision (e)(4) required either a transcript or minutes of the proceeding.
The appellate court determined that, by the strict definition of “transcript,” no transcripts of the three proceedings at issue existed. Therefore, the provision of subdivision (e)(4) or section 21167.6 did not directly require an order of augmentation in this case. The appellate court then considered whether the audio recordings of the meetings constituted “other written materials” for the purpose of the same section.
The appellate court determined the term “written,” as used in the section, was ambiguous and that ambiguity had to be resolved in a way that “best effectuates the purpose of the law.” Because this issue arose under CEQA, the court chose the interpretation that “best promotes accountability, informed self-government, and environmental protection.” This required a broad interpretation of “written materials” to include audio recordings of public proceedings for which there is no transcript. Minutes of proceedings would be insufficient due to the risk of errors of exclusion. Based on this interpretation, the appellate court concluded CID’s motion to augment the administrative record should have been granted for the tapes of the three meetings.
Documents Referenced in a Comment Letter
CID argued that the administrative record should have included certain studies and reports referred to in comment letters sent to the city. The appellate court analyzed CID’s argument based on four separate categories of documents.
Documents in the first category had previously been provided to the city by CID.
Documents in the second category were named in comment letters along with a general web site where the document could be located. The comment letter included a specific request that these documents be included in the record of proceedings. The court noted that some effort could be required to navigate from the general web site to more specific pages and to identify the specific document referenced in the comments.
The third category included documents with a URL citation but without a request that the documents be included in the record of proceedings. The court noted these “specific webpages” would produce the document in question when visited with a “minimal” burden on lead agency personnel.
The fourth category of documents named in comment letters simply identified the organization that created the referenced study or report. No further information was provided for locating these documents on the internet, and no offer was made to provide a hard copy of these documents.
The appellate court again cited CEQA section 21167.6, subdivision (e), to resolve the question of whether these different documents should have been included in the administrative record. Subdivision (e)(6) requires the inclusion of all written comments on environmental documents prepared for the project. Subdivision (e)(7) requires the inclusion of all written evidence or correspondence submitted to the public agency with respect to compliance with CEQA or with respect to the project.
The appellate court determined the term “written comment” as used by subdivision (e)(6) most certainly included the letters submitted by CID; however, this term did not include documents cited to support the assertions and contentions made in the comment letters. Therefore, documents cited in a comment letter could not be “bootstrapped” into the record of proceedings using subdivision (e)(6).
To determine whether subdivision (e)(7) required inclusion of the various categories of documents submitted by CID, the appellate court analyzed both the meaning of “written evidence” and “submitted to.” The appellate court adopted a broad interpretation of “written evidence.” Evidence is something that tends to prove or disprove an alleged fact. The court looked at multiple definitions of “written” and found that each supported the conclusion that documents that can be accessed on the internet are “written.” The court held the term “submitted to”, which generally means “presented or made available for use or study,” is concerned with the effort that must be expended by the lead agency in using or studying the written evidence presented to it. The court employed this pragmatic approach to avoid placing an unacceptable burden on lead agency personnel and their limited resources.
The court held documents in the first category were clearly submitted to the agency. CID delivered hard copies to the city in connection with a different project and offered to provide additional copies upon request. CID’s letter also specifically requested that these documents be included in the record of proceedings. The court determined it was not an unreasonable burden for the city to obtain the documents from their files for the other project, or in the alternate, to request additional hard copies from CID. As a result, the appellate court determined these documents were part of the administrative record.
In contrast, the court determined it was an unreasonable burden to expect city staff to acquire the second category of documents. These documents were named in CID’s comment letter, which provided only a general web site. Additional searching was required to find the specific web page where the document was located. While some documents might be easily located from a general webpage, others might prove difficult to find. The court noted it would take little effort on the part of the commenter to provide the URL linking directly to the document. Therefore, these documents were not properly submitted to the city and were not part of the administrative record.
Documents in the third category were identified by a citation to the specific webpage containing the document. This information made the documents readily available to city personnel and therefore they should have been included in the record.
Documents comprising the fourth category were merely named in comment letters without citation to a general or specific webpage. For these documents, the effort put forth by the commenter was minimal, and the time and effort of the lead agency personal to locate and acquire the document could be substantial. These documents, the appellate court held, were clearly not submitted to the lead agency.
Documents Referenced and Relied Upon in an EIR
CID argued the administrative record was incomplete because it omitted documents referenced and relied upon in the EIR. Subdivision (e)(10) of section 21167.6 indicates the record of proceedings shall include copies of documents relied upon in any EIR and either made available to the public during the public review period or included in the public agency’s files on the project. CID relied on the second clause to argue that documents used to prepare the EIR and held in files of sub-consultants should have been part of the administrative record.
The appellate court determined that the term “public agency’s files” means files owned by the agency or in its custody or control. The court noted that the agreement between the city and primary consultant stated that the City owns the contents of the files held by the primary consultant used in connection with the project. As a result of this ownership interest, the appellate court determined the primary consultant’s files were part of the public agency’s files on the project for the purposes of section 21167.6, subdivision (e)(10).
The appellate court determined that CID could not establish that the city owned or exercised custody or control over the files held by sub-consultants. As a result, these files were not part of the public agency’s files on the project.
Certification of the Administrative Record.
The appellate court addressed whether error in the certification of the administrative record constituted prejudicial error in this case. The court determined it did not because the certification was no longer the operative document that defined the contents of the record. Instead, the trial court’s order specifying the scope of the record superseded the city’s certification. The appellate court noted trial courts have the authority to resolve disputes over the scope of the administrative records. Appellate courts then review the trial court’s determination in these cases and not the determination of the public agency that certified the record.
The appellate court pointed out that, in this case, the matter would be sent back to the trial court, which would comply with the appellate court’s directions and issue a new order that would define the scope of the administrative record.
This is a significant case addressing the scope of documents that must be included in administrative records prepared for CEQA proceedings. Lead agencies compiling an administrative record in response to litigation should include materials in the primary consultants’ project files to the extent the lead agency owns or exercises control or custody over those files. Additionally, agencies should include audio tapes where no transcripts are available, or where the minutes of a meeting may not fully convey the context and content of testimony and discussions at the meeting. Lastly, the decision provides some helpful clarification regarding sources of information referenced in written comments and indicates that the specificity and manner in which they are presented dictates whether they should be included in the record. Overall, the decision confirms that the scope of the record of proceedings in a CEQA case is quite broad, as the language of the statute indicates.