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Utilizing the Public Records Act

The California Public Records Act (the “PRA”) exists to ensure citizens have access to public records. In enacting the PRA, the legislature declared that “access to information concerning the conduct of the people’s business is a fundamental and necessary right of every person in this state.”

The PRA is modeled after the federal Freedom of Information Act, which provides public access to federal records.  The PRA covers any writing containing information relating to the conduct of the public’s business prepared, owned, used or retained by any state or local agency regardless of its physical form. While most public documents are covered by the PRA, some records are expressly exempt. A few examples of exempt records include voter registration information, pending litigation, personnel and medical records of public agency employees, personal financial data required of licensees, and criminal investigation records.

In addition to the records specifically exempted, other records may not be disclosed if a determination is made that the public policy of disclosure is outweighed by the public interest in nondisclosure based on the facts of a particular circumstance.

Every person has the right to inspect and/or request a copy of a public record. The request should be made in writing and must reasonably describe an identifiable record. Some agencies have a form that can be used to request the record(s). Public agencies must provide reasonable assistance to the member of the public to identify records that are responsive to the request or to the purpose of the request, if stated.

Examples of documents you may request from a public agency include:

  • Agendas, minutes, ordinances, and resolutions
  • Agreements between the public agency and others (contractors, consultants, other agencies, etc.)
  • Campaign disclosure statements of local candidates and campaign committees
  • Municipal and County Code provisions and administrative policies
  • Statements of Economic Interest of elected officials

Public agencies may charge a fee for copies of records requested. The fee may only cover the direct cost of duplication.

Within ten days of receipt of the PRA request, the public agency must advise the person making the request whether the records will be provided. If the public agency determines the records are nondisclosable, the public agency must notify the person making the request of the basis for that determination. The ten-day time limit may be extended if “unusual circumstances” are found to exist. “Unusual circumstances” are defined by the PRA as the need to search for records off-site, the need to search through voluminous records, the need to consult another agency, and the need to compile data or write a computer program to extract information from a computer. If “unusual circumstances” exist, the public agency may take up to an additional fourteen days. The public agency must, however, notify the requestor in writing of the need for the delay.

Most public agencies are cooperative and happy to assist you in finding the records you seek. Should you run into someone less than helpful, simply remind them of their obligations under the PRA.

Heather Whitham

hwhitham@carnaclaw.com