By Michael Reiter, Attorney at Law
The California Public Records Act is an invaluable tool for individuals, traditional and new media, public interest groups, non-profits, business entities, and even lawyers and political groups to find out what local government is doing. This first post has to do with a very brief overview of the Act, and how to make a Public Records Act request. Private Attorneys especially do not use the Act efficiently, much to the delight of City Attorneys and much to the detriment of their clients.
I have handled Public Records Act Requests on behalf of local agencies, and I have made Public Records Act Requests to local agencies, so I have a good perspective about how the Act is handled on both sides of the counter. Having an attorney knowledgeable about the California Public Records Act is important if a client is involved in a case against a City, County, or other local government agency.
The Public Records Act is found in the California Government Code. A Requester can find the California Government Code here. The version found here is unannotated. If a Requester wants to see an annotated code, it can be found at most public libraries and law libraries. The annotated version gives case law and secondary source references. The Act is codified at Government Code, Title 1 “General”, Division 7 “Miscellaneous,” Chapter 3.5 “Inspection of Public Records”, Article 1, “General Provisions” and Article 2 “Other Exemptions From Disclosure.” If a Requester is searching manually, the Act is found in Government Code section 6250 et seq. [“Et seq.” is legal jargon from the Latin “et sequentia” meaning “and following.” It is shorthand to tell a court, or others, the general location of an some amount of primary or secondary law.]
The California Legislature, in enacting the Act, found and declared “that access to information concerning the conduct of the people’s business is a fundamental and necessary right of every person in” California. Government Code section 6250.
While, there are generally two rights, to inspect and/or copy public records, this post will focus on how to make the request.
How and When to make a request to a local government agency in San Bernardino County and Riverside County:
The Act requires that records not subject to an exemption are to be made available “upon a request” Government Code section 6253(b). The Court of Appeal for the Second District of California found that the “California Public Records Act plainly does not require a written request.” Los Angeles Times v. Alameda Corridor Transp. Authority (2001) 88 Cal.App. 4th 1381, 1392.
What does this mean, practically? A Requester can ask the local government agency in person, or over the phone, to inspect or copy records. However, the practical thing to do is to put it in writing so that there is a record of the request. Local governments are collections of individuals, and if the individual employed by the government does not understand the request, or does not write the request down correctly, a Requester may not get to inspect the records in a timely fashion. A Requester’s best practice is to put the Public Record Act request in writing and date it. A Requester does not have to use a form provided by the local government agency, but sometimes it is easier to use their form.
Where and to whom should the Request be made? Though the Act does not specify, local government agencies in Riverside and San Bernardino County usually have Departments that are responsible for responding to routine requests, such as for copies of ordinances or minutes. In an incorporated city or town, the Requester can usually request the documents from the City Clerk, and it should be routed within the City to the right department if it is not the City Clerk . In cities with in-house City Attorney’s Offices, such as the City of San Bernardino and the City of Riverside, a Requester can request the documents from the City Attorney. Likewise, it will be routed to the correct department.
However, the best practice is to request from the specific department that has the records. If the Requester is ling with a specific department, such as Planning or Code Enforcement, the Requester can make the request directly to the department who is likely to handle the request. If the Requester is asking for records from different departments, the Requester might want to make the request to the City Manager or City Administrator. A Requester should feel free to ask someone in the particular city, town or county. Most local government entities understand their responsibilities under the Act, and want to help the public. Some do not.
A later discussion with examine how to make a reasonably described record request.
The information you obtain at this blog is not, nor is it intended to be, legal advice. No attorney-client relationship is established by reading or commenting on this blog. You should consult an attorney for advice regarding your individual situation.
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