When I first heard last year that TED was returning to Monterey, where the now-global phenomenon began in 1984, I was intrigued. Speakers included stars like singer Lizzo and science fiction author Kim Stanley Robinson.
The non-profit TED – meaning technology, entertainment and design – is best known for hosting short, well-produced talks. TED Talks have propelled people from relative obscurity to glory, elevating their ideas and making them grow.
It looks like we’re late for a TED talk on access to public records. (Spoiler alert: Eight months into this battle, the Weekly got 736 pages with recordings that TED sought to withhold and they contain… a giant nothing.)
I first contacted the TED media team on May 27, 2021 with a few innocuous questions, such as “Can you tell me why you’re going back to Monterey this year?” »
Faced with stonewalling on every question – no, they wouldn’t help coordinate talks with speakers (don’t worry, we found them ourselves); no, the media could not be present – we decided to look for answers elsewhere. On June 23, the Weekly filed a California Public Records Act with the city of Monterey, requesting TED-related correspondence, hoping to find an answer to “why Monterey?”
In journalism, this is a fairly standard request and for Monterey, a fairly standard version. But what we got on July 27 was 975 pages so redacted – in some cases entire pages were blacked out – that it was impossible to discern the context.
There are exceptions to the Public Records Act – things like hotel prices or personal phone numbers. But TED officials claimed a nondisclosure agreement with the city meant they could dodge the public records law, requiring redactions far beyond what the city was suggesting.
“The city’s goal is to comply with the law, which means complying with the CPRA and the NDA, and they are reconcilable,” said Monterey City Attorney Christine Davi.
TED, however, did not consider them reconcilable. In the months that followed – after the conference ended – TED General Counsel Nishat Ruiter argued that trade secret protections covered just about everything. In a five-page letter to Davi on November 18, she emphasized the virtues of TED, as if creating an exception: “As you know, TED is a non-profit organization that seeks to improve the world by spreading powerful insights and encourages individuals to engage in meaningful conversations that can lead to a better future. The reason TED has been so successful in its mission and had such a positive impact on society is because of its expertise in planning and organizing conferences, which are trade secrets.
Virtue, however, is not an exception listed in the CPRA.
Nevertheless, Ruiter came to this reversal: “The public is best served by keeping TED’s trade secrets confidential so that TED can continue to carry out its mission on behalf of the public.”
The City of Monterey was caught between two obligations: respecting TED’s interpretation of CPRA and CPRA itself. On December 15, the Monterey City Council discussed potential litigation, fearing that TED might sue. “The city intends to produce public documents that TED says are confidential,” according to the council’s agenda.
Davi finally (rightly) chose the side of disclosure and on February 8, re-edited hundreds of pages at the Weekly – this time redacted in a sensible way, with things like phone numbers withheld.
What is revealed are hundreds of mundane emails about things like scheduling and Wi-Fi connectivity. Ironically, responses to WeeklyThe original question is there too.
On November 19, 2020, Conference Manager Kelly Stoetzel wrote to Monterey County Health Officer Edward Moreno about Covid protocols, and greeted him this way: “We look forward with great hope to bring TED back to its birthplace in Monterey. Our participants are hopeful and excited too.
In an email, conference production manager Kyle Shearer wrote, “We are excited to return to Monterey and work with you again!”
Maybe that was until they realized that doing business with a public entity means it’s in public view.