Inspecting and Obtaining Copies of Building Permits and Building Plans in California

By Michael Reiter, Attorney at Law.

I have been to multiple City Halls lately inspecting permits and plans, and obtaining copies of permits from local public agencies.  Here is a primer on using the California Public Records Act to inspect building permits and plans, and to receive copies of permits.

As we have discussed before, the California Public Records Act is a way to inspect and obtain copies of documents.  This works for permits, as well.  Some forward-thinking cities have their permit systems online for anyone to inspect.  Others require you to take the trip to City Hall to look at the physical files, either because there is no online system, or because some cities are not as resident-friendly as others.

Every city I have ever dealt allows the public to inspect permits without any prior notice, and without the necessity of sending them to the City Attorney’s Office.  Likewise, getting copies of permits is easy, without the bureaucratic review process seen with many other Public Records Act Requests.

Health and Safety Code section19851 says that plans are open to inspection on premises of the building department as a public record.  No copy of the plans may be duplicated in whole or part except:

with the written permission, which permission shall not be unreasonably withheld as specified in subdivision (f), of the certified, licensed or registered professional or his or her successor, if any, who signed the original documents and the written permission of the original or current owner of the building, or, if the building is part of a common interest development, with the written permission of the board of directors or governing body of the association established to manage the common interest development, or (2) by order of a proper court or upon the request of any state agency.  California Health and Safety Code section 19851(a)(1).

There is also an argument that the plans are exempt from duplication pursuant to Government Code section 6254(k), the exemption part of the California Public Records Act that states: “(k) Records, the disclosure of which is exempted or prohibited pursuant to federal or state law, including, but not limited to, provisions of the Evidence Code relating to privilege.”    The idea is that since federal law, 17 United States Code section 102(a)(8) protects architectural works, and “architectural works” is defined as “the design of a building as embodied in any tangible medium of expression, including a building, architectural plans, or drawings. The work includes the overall form as well as the arrangement and composition of spaces and elements in the design, but does not include individual standard features.”  17 U.S.C. section 101.  I think that argument fails (as to inspection, not copying) because I don’t think it is among the bundle of rights associated with copyright specifically 17 U.S.C. section 106.

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.

Address : 300 E. State St. #517
Redlands, CA 92373
Telephone: (909) 296-6708

City of Riverside’s City Clerk Online Public Records

By Michael Reiter, Attorney at Law.
Finding a municipal record can be difficult even for in-house municipal lawyers. When I was Assistant City Attorney for the City of Redlands and a Deputy City Attorney for the City of San Bernardino, I would have to go to, email or call the City Clerk’s Office for someone to manually pull the needed document.

Luckily, progressive cities are putting more and more documents online.  This is a good practice because it allows both staff and the public to pull up public records without having to waste staff time retrieving the record.

The City of Riverside has such a system, which I stumbled upon looking for a Government Claim form from the City.  As an aside, I called the City’s 311 call center and they said the Government Claim Form is not available online.  They agreed to email me one.

The City of Riverside record database is available here.   The available folders are: Administration, Agendas, Boards and Commissions, Chaindex, City Council/Agency Reports, Contracts/Agreements, Covenants and Agreements, Deed Chaindex, Deed Outs, Deeds, Discussion Session, Elections, Fiscal, General Plan 2025 Program, Insurance, Minutes, Miscellaneous, Ordinances, Purchase Orders, Resolutions, Upcoming Public Hearings.

The Agendas go back to 1997.  The oldest deed that I could find was from 1955.  The earliest Agreement is from 1960.  Minutes date back to incorporation in 1883, Ordinances to 1907 (dating to the new series Ordinance 1).

There are many fascinating documents, including the Incorporation document from 1883.    Of course, the City of Riverside was then in San Bernardino County, so the Clerk of the Board of Supervisors was William F. Holcomb, first elected to the position in 1882.  Both his grandson and great-grandson would become mayors of San Bernardino.

So, you can’t get the Government Claim form online (I would suggest that someone who needs a claim form call 311, the City emailed it to me), but you can get a whole host of other documents that have a variety of uses.

[Update September 29, 2011]

San Bernardino also has such a system, which I stumbled upon while looking at Gigi Hanna’s website.

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.

A: 1255 W. Colton Ave., Suite 104
Redlands, CA 92374
T: (909) 708-6055

Can a public agency make a California Public Records Act Request?

By Michael Reiter, Attorney at Law

Can a public agency make a California Public Records Act Request?   This question has been popular on this blog lately.  People have searched for it on two separate days a few days apart.

When I was a Deputy City Attorney for the City of San Bernardino, I handled a number of Federal Civil Rights cases against the City and the San Bernardino Police Department.  One case involved a man who had earlier had a 42 U.S.C. section 1983 civil rights case against the City of Riverside.  I called up a Deputy City Attorney for the City of Riverside I knew and asked how to get the depositions in the case.  She suggested that I make a California Public Records Act request.  I did so, and I received the depositions.

This is an easy question to answer because there is a published case on the subject.  “Our conclusion that the City is a “person” entitled to request documents from another governmental entity is the only rational and reasonable interpretation of the statute.”  Los Angeles Unified School District v. Superior Court (2007) 151 Cal.App.4th 759, 771.  The confusion comes because the statute  (California Government Code section 6252(c) reads: “(c) “Person” includes any natural person, corporation, partnership, limited liability company, firm, or association.”

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.
A: 300 E. State St., Suite 517
Redlands, CA 92373-5235
T: (909) 296-6708

The California Public Records Act and The Future of Journalism in California

By Michael Reiter, Attorney at Law

I attended and graduated from Santa Clara University School of Law.  The School of Law is part of Santa Clara University, which opened in 1851.  It claims to be the oldest operating institution of higher learning in California.  That beats the College of California, the predecessor to the University of California, Berkeley, where I earned my A.B.  Anyway, I receive two alumni magazines from the school .  In the Spring 2011 edition of Santa Clara Magazine, the alumni magazine for the University as a whole, I found an interesting series of articles about the future of journalism in the United States.  I have a personal interest it, because of my family in the industry.  Among the articles is one titled: “Journalism: Broadsheets and Spreadsheets” by Jack Gillum, a database editor at USA Today.  It discusses the use of statistical analysis in analyzing public records for investigative journalism.

The California Public Records Act is an important tool for journalists in California.  In Mr. Gillum’s article, he discusses public records acts requests because of proprietary databases.  In California, a public agency can extend the time to respond from ten days to an additional 14 days in unusual circumstances, such when there is the “need to compile data, to write programming language or a computer program, or to construct a computer report to extract data.”  California Government Code section 6253(c)(4).  Duplication of electronic records are limited to  ” the direct cost of producing a copy of a record in an electronic format.”  California Government Code section 6253.9(a)(2).

However, a requester does have to pay for “the cost of producing a copy of the record, including the cost to construct a record, and the cost of programming and computer services necessary to produce a copy of the record when either of the following applies: (1) In order to comply with the provisions of subdivision (a), the
public agency would be required to produce a copy of an electronic record and the record is one that is produced only at otherwise regularly scheduled intervals. (2) The request would require data compilation, extraction, or programming to produce the record.  California Government Code section 6253.9(b)(1), (2).

The problem encountered by Mr. Gillum in other states may have been based on a provision similar to this one in the California Public Records Act:  “Nothing in this section shall be construed to require the public agency to release an electronic record in the electronic form in which it is held by the agency if its release would jeopardize or compromise the security or integrity of the original record or of any proprietary software in which it is maintained.  California Government Code section 6253.9(f).   Part of the Legislative History of AB 2799 (2000) explains the reasoning behind subsection F: ” An agency would not be required to release an electronic record in electronic form if its release would
jeopardize or compromise the security or integrity of the original record or of any proprietary software in which it is maintained.  This limitation was added to the bill in order to
alleviate concerns that electronic records, though  created with taxpayer money, may have been produced using  software designed specifically for the agency. This bill
would give the agency the flexibility to refuse to  release a requested record in electronic format, if such a release would mean that the software would also have to
be released. Even without the software problem, though, an electronic record containing the data may be deciphered and the software program reconstructed (see below).

The agency also may refuse to provide the information in electronic format if the electronic record, when transmitted or provided to a requester, could be altered
and then retransmitted, thus rendering the original record vulnerable.

These two concerns were registered by opponents of SB  1065 last year. Thus, AB 2799 includes a provision that gives the public agency the option not to provide the
information if disclosing it would jeopardize the integrity or security of the system.”  California Senate Floor Analysis, Pages 4-5, August 19, 2000.   As of today, I have not seen a reported court decision analyzing California Government Code section 6253.9.

Anyway, the article in Santa Clara Magazine is interesting, and I recommend reading it.  When I was Assistant City Attorney in the City of Redlands I assisted journalists with their California Public Records Act requests.  Today, as an attorney in private practice, I help journalists  with their California Public Records Acts requests.  In today’s fiscal environment, journalists do not have the same access to attorneys as when newspapers had more revenue, so it is important to help local journalists in fulfilling their mission of investigatory journalism.

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.

 

A: 300 E. State St., Suite 517
Redlands, CA 92373-5235
T: (909) 296-6708

California Public Records Act, How and Where to Make a Request in San Bernardino County and Riverside County

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.

 

A: 300 E. State St., Suite 517
Redlands, CA 92373-5235
T: (909) 296-6708