Many local governments and state agencies in California are happy to assist citizens in their requests for public records, and answer questions about the process. But that doesn’t mean it’s always easy, and sometimes you face agencies, municipalities,or individual government employees who don’t know the law about open records, are lazy or lackadaisical in complying, or are extremely resistant to satisfying your request. For a citizen, it can be confusing and frustrating. And seemingly random, because not all governmental agencies have the same process and policy for getting records. Some are simply more helpful and citizen-friendly than others.
However, do not get discouraged. The California Public Records Act is a great resource to obtain information to which you are entitled. And time and time again the courts are finding that attempts to evade the explicit requirements are against the law. Finally, having to take a PRA matter to court may entitle you to attorney fees–so keep that in mind before giving up hope. Here are some tips on how to be successful in making PRA requests.
However, one often unexplored right under the PRA is the right to inspect. And it, above all other tips and pointers, may be the most successful at helping you get the information you seek and to which you are entitled.
Ask to Inspect
The Public Records Act provides a statutory right to inspect records, not just to obtain copies.
Public records are open to inspection at all times during the office hours of the state or local agency and every person has a right to inspect any public record…
You do not have to make a written request to inspect records, nor can you be charged to inspect records. The agency or municipality may not dictate to the requester which option (inspection or copying) must be used–rather, that is the requester’s decision. Moreover, the requester does not have to choose between inspection and copying but instead can choose both options. For example, a requester may first inspect a set of records, and then, based on that review, decide which records should be copied.
Virtually every scrap of paper – even a sticky note or a napkin that an official scrawled on and saved – is a record that you should consider fair game for the asking. However, if you are making a request for copies or virtually, there is a good chance that some records could not be disclosed to you–without you ever even knowing.
Don’t imagine the reasons why officials might not release a record – rather, go look at the records yourself. Particularly, if the agency, municipality, or responsive records are unfamiliar. It may be that you can understand the information you’re seeking better by inspecting originals before requesting copies. If you ultimately intend a voluminous request, consider inspecting a smaller portion of the records to get a better idea of how the records are organized.This might help you narrow your request when you ask to see the remaining records.
There are some limitations – rule of reason – to the inspection experience. This standard is in place to help agencies and municipalities protect records against theft, mutilation, or accidental damage; prevent interference with the orderly functioning of the office; and generally avoid chaos in record archives. The agencies may want limit the number of record inspectors present at one time at a records inspection. The agency or municipality may also want to prohibit the use of cell phones to photograph records where the inspection is of architectural or engineer plans with copyright protection.
For example, the right to inspect does not mean that a requester has a right to demand to see a record and immediately gain access to it. Rather, the agency or municipality has some implied protections to prevent it from being overrun by inspectors. This gives the agency or municipality a reasonable opportunity to search for, collect, and, if necessary, redact exempt information prior to the records being disclosed in an inspection.
Specifically, it has been generally accepted that the standard of "promptness" set forth forth in the production of copies of records also applies to the inspection right to access records. Thus, the agency or municipality, when confronted by an inspection request–whether in person, over the phone, or in writing–has ten (10) days to provide access, plus an additional fourteen (14) days if an extension is requested. Therefore, an in person inspector could expect to have to wait up to twenty-four (24) days. Then again, neither the 10-day response period for responding to a request for a copy of records nor the additional 14-day extension may be used to delay or obstruct the inspection of public records. So, requests for commonly disclosed records that are held in a manner that allows for prompt disclosure should not be withheld because of the statutory response period.
In addition, in lieu of providing inspection access at the local agency’s office, a local agency may post the requested public record on its website and direct a member of the public to the website. If a member of the public requests a copy of the record because of the inability to access or reproduce the record from the website, the local agency must provide a copy.