School district public record requests go unanswered; official in charge may get a promotion

Komey Vishakan

BY ALLISON LEVITSKY
Daily Post Staff Writer

The Palo Alto school district has been ignoring state law when it comes to fulfilling California Public Records Act requests for months. But the former prosecutor who oversees the handling of those requests may be promoted tonight by the school board to become the district’s general counsel, the school system’s main attorney.

Komey Vishakan joined the district as a legal specialist in June 2016 and was made the manager of policy and legal compliance a year later.

As general counsel, Vishakan would be the district’s in-house lawyer tasked with providing legal expertise to the board and superintendent on board governance, adherence to public meeting and public records laws, the state education code and various federal statutes.

Vishakan would also investigate formal complaints made against the district and advise the district on issues related to the Office for Civil Rights. She would also represent the district in mediation, review contracts and evaluate cases.

In her current role, Vishakan has been responsible for responding to requests for public documents.

Under state law, public agencies are required to respond to these requests within 10 days by handing over the documents, providing a legal reason for not releasing them or notifying the person making the request that the agency needs an extension before responding.

The district has fallen more than a year behind in releasing public documents. The number of public records requests have also multiplied in the last two years: from 26 in 2016, to 126 last year and 164 this year.

The Post still has seven outstanding records requests dating back as far as March.

Almost 60% of the requests are from the same five requesters, according to a report to be presented to the board this evening.

Nearly 1 million pages of documents

The district currently has 20 pending requests with more than 5,000 responsive pages each, totaling 987,905 pages that have yet to be released.

Twelve of those requests date back to late May 2017, after Channel 2 reported that a Palo Alto High School student had been sexually assaulted in a school bathroom in October 2016.

Board President Ken Dauber said he expected that Vishakan would “continue to be involved” in handling public records requests along with other workers.

“I agree that it’s not acceptable to have (public record act) requests from eight months ago that haven’t been responded to. We need to fix it,” Dauber said.

However, Dauber said he doesn’t blame Vishakan for the district’s noncompliance with state law.

“I attribute the PRA compliance issues to district resourcing and management issues, not to Ms. Vishakan,” Dauber said. “Looking forward, the district is investing significant effort to clear the backlog.”

School board member Todd Collins agreed.

“Any track record is the district’s, not Komey’s personally,” Collins said. “While she is usually the person the public interacts with on PRA requests, decisions about resource allocation, request priorities, legal interpretation and how to handle complex issues are not made in isolation or by a single person.”

Dauber said he intends to work for a board policy that sets “internal expectations for compliance” and “creates more visibility for the board through regular reporting.”

“That will include how to handle cases where the request is so broad that it’s unreasonable or infeasible to fulfill the request,” Dauber said. “The board has discussed that case in the past but I think the district needs to take action, as it’s making responding to other requests more difficult.”

Playing catch-up

Last month, Superintendent Don Austin said there were “a million reasons” for the backlog in public records requests and said the district had bought new software to help.

“We’re trying to crank through things,” Austin said. “I’ve never been in a place that’s been this far behind, but we’re trying to catch up.”

According to her LinkedIn profile, Vishakan earned a bachelor’s degree in business from the University of Sydney in 1996 and a law degree from the University of Western Sydney three years later.
Vishakan served as a state and federal prosecutor in Australia between 2000 and 2003. Then she moved to England, where she worked as a senior crown prosecutor and higher court advocate for the Crown Prosecution Service from 2003 to 2010.

Vishakan then returned to Australia, where she served as the national litigation manager for the Australian Crime Commission from 2010 to 2012.

Vishakan’s 18-month contract includes a base salary of $188,634.

2 Comments

  1. After reading this story, my first thought was “What’s new?” The PAUSD only gives lip service to obeying the law, why should it be any different when it comes to the state Public Records Act? She’ll fit in just fine with the culture at 25 Churchill. I’m glad the Post is pointing this out, but realistically, nothing is going to change over there. Same old, same old.

  2. Millions in legal fees and now an in-house lawyer to coordinate all that spending on legal fees. Has the school board lost its mind? In Palo Alto, it’s Reading, Writin’ and Litigating.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.