Wednesday, July 18, 2001
Court of Appeal Says University Must Disclose Who Paid for Luxury Suites at Campus Arena
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer/Appellate Courts
Documents identifying the licensees of luxury suites at the campus arena being built at California State University, Fresno must be made public by the university, the Fifth District Court of Appeal has ruled.
The public interest in disclosure outweighs the university’s concern that fund raising may be inhibited if donors can’t give anonymously, Justice Rebecca Wiseman wrote for the court.
“The public should be able to determine whether the purchase price for luxury accommodations in the arena is a fair and reasonable return on its contribution to the project,” the justice wrote. “In other words, disclosure allows the public to discern whether its resources have been spent for the benefit of the community at large or only a limited few. The public should also be able to determine whether any favoritism or advantage has been afforded certain individuals or entities in connection with the license agreements, and whether any discriminatory treatment exists.”
The university’s expressed fears, Wiseman said, are “speculative, self-serving opinions designed to preclude the dissemination of information to which the public is entitled.”
The $103 million Save Mart Center is being built primarily with private donations and is to be operated by the same nonprofit association that runs the campus bookstore, food services, housing and other commercial enterprises. It will seat about 16,000 for sports and about 18,000 for concerts, and is projected to open in the fall of next year.
The arena will feature 32 luxury suites which are being licensed to donors at a cost of $45,000 to $63,000 per year for five-, seven-, and 10-year terms. The revenue goes to the construction and operation of the arena.
The McClatchy Company, which publishes The Fresno Bee, sued the university, its fund-raising foundation and the California State University, Fresno Association last year after university officials said they would make leaseholders’ names public only with their consent.
Some of the donors, the university said, were afraid of pressures from other charities or from family members if the donations, which are largely tax deductible, were disclosed.
Fresno Superior Court Judge Franklin P. Jones rejected the university’s argument that the public interest in confidentiality outweighed the interest in disclosure, which would make the records exempt under Government Code Sec. 6255(a)—the “catchall” provision of the California Public Records Act.
The Court of Appeal agreed to stay Jones’ order, but said yesterday that “[t]he time has come to disclose the requested documents.”
Officials argued that to disclose names of all its luxury suite licensees could prompt some to back out, jeopardizing the arena’s entire financing package. But Wiseman said that wasn’t enough to overcome the presumption in favor of disclosure.
“First, the university has set forth no competent evidence that licensees demanded, or university or association personnel promised, confidentiality,” the justice said. “The license agreements themselves contain no such provision.... “
Besides, the jurist said, “there is no admissible evidence in the record that any license agreements will be canceled if licensee names are disclosed to the public.”
The Bee, she noted, was only seeking to discover licensee’s names, suite locations, addresses, and the amounts that they paid, and was not seeking personal financial information.
While upholding the lower court order against the university, the appeals court overturned a similar order against the association. The panel ruled that the association is not a public agency under the narrow language of the CPRA.
The case is California State University, Fresno Association, Inc., v. Superior Court, McClatchy Company RPI, 01 S.O.S. 3448.
Copyright 2001, Metropolitan News Company