California public records


    A guide to your rights as a citizen

    How to get documents quicker and cheaper

    Tips to help gov­ern­ment work­ers ex­ped­ite the re­triev­al pro­cess, lim­it print­ing costs, and en­sure that ex­emp­tions and dead­lines were prop­erly fol­lowed.

    It can some­times be dif­fi­cult — and costly — to ob­tain gov­ern­ment re­cords, even those that are clearly re­quired to be avail­able for the pub­lic. Here are some troubleshoot­ing tips.

    How can I receive public records more quickly?

    Pub­lic Re­cords Act re­quests can be time-con­sum­ing, es­pe­cially if you are seek­ing a sub­stan­tial num­ber of doc­u­ments. The city or agency must re­trieve re­cords, eval­u­ate wheth­er they can be dis­closed, and then print them.

    The time that pro­cess takes of­ten de­pends on the size and nature of the re­quest. Gen­er­ally, the more spe­cif­ic your re­quest, the quick­er you will re­ceive a re­sponse. But ex­perts say there are sev­er­al oth­er ways to speed up the pro­cess.

    It can be help­ful to dis­cuss your re­quest with city staff, said Peter Scheer, ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or of the Cali­for­nia First Amend­ment Co­ali­tion. If you provide a writ­ten re­quest, there is a leg­al re­cord of it. And if your request is in writing, state law re­quires a pub­lic agency to re­spond to your re­quest in writ­ing, he said.

    Terry Francke, gen­er­al coun­sel at Cali­for­ni­ans Aware, said in­clud­ing the phrase “please dis­close the re­cords as they are loc­ated,” in a writ­ten re­quest can help pre­vent delays.

    “That should start get­ting you some pro­duc­tion earli­er than you might if you waited for the whole pack­age,” Francke said.

    How can I avoid printing costs?

    Many pub­lic doc­u­ment files are ex­pens­ive. Con­tracts and oth­er agree­ments can be hun­dreds of pages, and agen­cies of­ten charge 10 cents or more per page. In some cit­ies the fee is as high as 25 cents per page.

    In your re­quest, you can ask for an es­tim­ate of all print­ing costs. You can also ask to re­view the re­cords be­fore they are prin­ted. Both Francke and Scheer said that in­spect­ing doc­u­ments first is the best way to avoid ex­cess­ive print­ing fees.

    If print­ing fees seem es­pe­cially high, you can re­quest the “cost study” used to jus­ti­fy the fees, Francke said. Pub­lic agen­cies are ob­lig­ated to charge only for print­ing costs — not re­quired labor, he said.

    “Gen­er­ally speak­ing, they are not al­lowed to charge the cost of search and re­triev­al, edit­ing and re­dact­ing — it’s the Kinko’s cost that you are pay­ing,” Francke said.

    How can I research exemptions cited by cities?

    Cit­ies must cite Cali­for­nia gov­ern­ment code when deny­ing a pub­lic re­cords re­quest. It’s im­port­ant to re­search these cita­tions to make sure they are cor­rect, Francke said.

    For ex­ample, in some cases an agency will with­hold an en­tire doc­u­ment even though only a por­tion of it is ex­empt from dis­clos­ure. Make sure to men­tion in your ini­tial cor­res­pond­ence that you want the re­cords even if por­tions of them must be re­dac­ted.

    Francke said pub­lic em­ploy­ees some­times lack a com­plete un­der­stand­ing of the law.

    “There is no bad con­sequence to a gov­ern­ment em­ploy­ee who mis­quotes the law to you,” he said. “They have the bur­eau­crat­ic sense that if they give away too much — that’s when they might get in trouble. So they err on the side of deni­al. They don’t al­ways err, but when they do it’s on the side of deni­al.”

    Here are a few re­sources to help you bet­ter un­der­stand the Cali­for­nia Pub­lic Re­cords Act:

    Both the League of Cali­for­nia Cit­ies and Cali­for­ni­ans Aware of­fer free ad­vice on their web­sites to cit­izens try­ing to ob­tain pub­lic re­cords. The co­ali­tion also has a free iPhone app.

    Should I consult an attorney if I’m not receiving public records?

    Ex­perts said re­questors should con­sider any lit­ig­a­tion care­fully be­cause of the cost of at­tor­neys fees.

    “You don’t want to file a law­suit pre­ma­turely, but on the oth­er hand, an agency can’t be re­war­ded for simply pay­ing no at­ten­tion to dead­lines,” Scheer said.

    If you dis­agree with a city’s with­hold­ing of re­cords, Scheer said it’s help­ful to fol­low up on your ini­tial re­quest with a “fac­tu­al ar­gu­ment” on why you be­lieve the re­cords should be pub­lic. This gives the agency more time to re­spond and cre­ates a writ­ten re­cord of your ef­fort to ob­tain the re­cords.

    Francke said “rush­ing to the court­house” can be risky be­cause a judge may de­term­ine that the city was en­gaged in a good-faith ef­fort to loc­ate the re­cords, and that they hadn’t been giv­en enough time to re­spond to the re­quest.

    Share your documents

    If you have a pub­lic re­cord you would like to share with The Times, at­tach it to an email to doc­u­ or mail it to 202 W. 1st St. Los Angeles, CA 90012, at­ten­tion City Desk.

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