By SAM SCOTT
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Sonoma State University is getting top marks from a watchdog organization for upholding the state’s public records law, though some critics find the acclaim at odds with reality.
SSU received an A+ in an audit of public universities released Monday by Californians Aware, a nonprofit group dedicated to open governance.
The group sent public information requests to all 23 branches of the California State University system and the 10 campuses of the University of California.
The queries made a half-dozen demands, including asking for copies of a school’s contract with its president or chancellor, for recent credit card statements by the president or chancellor, and for its Form 700, which declares a president or chancellor’s economic interests.
SSU sailed through with a perfect score, one of 10 CSUs to receive an A+, thanks to sufficiently quick responses. On average, the system scored a B, with just two CSU schools, Chico and Fullerton, receiving F’s after failing to provide any information within 30 days.
“We do as much as we can to be as public as we can about anything that might be of interest to the public,” said Susan Kashack, SSU’s associate vice president for marketing and communication.
The grade, however, runs contrary to the impressions of some SSU faculty who’ve long complained about lack of openness on the Green Music Center, whose projected costs rose tenfold over a decade of construction.
“We have tried consistently without success to get SSU transparency regarding the business affairs around the Green Music Center,” said Bob Karlsrud, professor emeritus at the school. “When meetings are held at the insistence of the faculty, administrators filibuster these meetings until the great majority of the audience has left.”
Any suggestion that SSU is an exemplar of openness leaves him “flabbergasted,” Karlsrud said.
The SSU Academic Foundation, a nonprofit auxiliary foundation chaired by SSU president Ruben Armiñana, has also come under heavy criticism for lacking transparency. The issue flared after former foundation board member Clem Carinalli filed bankruptcy in 2009, which revealed he had received millions of dollars in loans from the foundation.
The disclosure, and school officials’ tight-lipped response to it, prompted a legislative effort to make such foundations subject to public-records law.
Emily Francke, Cal Aware’s executive director, acknowledged the survey was a snapshot, but said it was a good way to show how schools compare in similar situations and as a way to start dialogue.
“If it raises some people’s hackles, that’s a great opportunity for them to raise their own experience,” she said.
The audit’s snapshot shows a much less flattering picture of the University of California. The UCs averaged an F grade, with UC San Francisco not even acknowledging receiving the requests, Francke said.
Last week, Californians Aware released the results of a similar audit of 36 community college districts, including Santa Rosa Junior College. SRJC received a B, slightly higher than average, after losing points for charging more than the prescribed amount for its Form 700 and for asking about the requester’s identify and intent.
After hearing the results, school president SRJC Robert Agrella said he was unaware of the 10 cents per copy limit for the Form 700. The school’s policy calls for charging 25 cents a copy for all public information requests.
Agrella said Friday the school was changing the copying fee for all public records to 10 cents a copy as a result of the audit.
“We most likely will not even charge anything if the request can be done electronically and doesn’t involve a lot of work,” he said in e-mail. “I think we do a very good job of replying to requests, if the info is available.”