more articles like this
How to Procure Public Information
updated: Jan 01, 2010, 12:00 PM
By Shane Stark
Ed note: We asked retired Santa Barbara County Counsel Shane Stark to provide our readers with some tips for how to best procure public information from local and state government. Here are his suggestions. We hope this will encourage our readers to seek out some of the information they are lacking from mainstream media and share it with others on edhat.com. We strive to be a forum for all voices and we want to empower you to get the answers you need from the powers that be.
First, help yourself. To get information from a California state or local government agency (city, county, or district), first search the agency website. Staff reports and other information on projects and topics of local interest are often attachments to the minutes of local agencies and are available on-line. Googling key words may reveal the documents that relate to an event or item of city business.
Second, ask the agency. If the documents you want are not available on-line or you don't know what documents are, related your concern, you may make a request to the person or office you think has the information to inspect or copy documents that relate to the subject of interest. You must request specific, identifiable documents.
You are more likely to get good customer service if you are civil, clear, and succinct. It helps to tell the agency that you are making a request under the California Public Records Act. The Act requires the agency to help you with your request. Often, if a person has a question that can be answered on the spot, he or she can call the local agency and ask. Since it takes far less time to answer a question than to assemble information for a Public Records Act response, government staffers will often provide information without much hassle.
You may make a request in person, in writing, or by e-mail. You may specify the form of the copies (e-file or hard copy) you want. Usually, there will be a public story indicating the department or agency in charge. If you don't know who has the records, browse the agency website for the staff contact or call the agency and ask the public information officer, or if none, the chief executive office.
You may get a copy of any non-exempt public document - writing in any form "prepared, owned, used or retained" by a government agency relating to the conduct of the public's business. NOTE: A number of California laws independent of the Act either grant or restrict disclosure of particular public records. You must pay the direct cost of copying, exclusive of staff time. The agency does not have to compile data or do research for the general public. Rather, it allows inspection and copying of existing paper and electronic files.
The League of Cities Municipal Law handbook, condensed in the county's Owlet's Guide to Public Business has a 4-page summary of the basic topics regarding the Public's right to government documents and nondisclosure. Here's a link (IV(D) pp. 125-128, near the end of the file.)_
Usually, if you are polite, precise and persistent, you can efficiently get the information you need from a local agency. On occasion, an agency will ignore a request, refuse to cooperate, or advance complex legal reasons for resisting producing documents. One is advised to consult a lawyer in such cases.
In response to reader questions, Mr. Stark added this additional information
Edhat readers requested information on Sheriff’s records and available remedies when agencies are non-responsive or recalcitrant.
Re: Sheriff’s records.
A number of provisions exempt law enforcement records from disclosure. Peace officer personnel records and records of citizen complaints against law enforcement personnel are confidential (Penal Code § 832.7) and are not subject to disclosure except by discovery under the Evidence Code. Arrest records may not be commercially exploited. Commercial use of the addresses and phone numbers of arrestees or crime victims is a crime; these addresses are private unless they are requested by a private investigator or for scholarly, journalistic, political or governmental purposes. The exemption for criminal investigation records extends indefinitely, even after the investigation is closed. (Litigation records are exempt from disclosure until the litigation is concluded; then they are public.) Applications for concealed weapons permits are public; some information may be redacted and home addresses of peace officers and judges are exempt from disclosure.
Re: Remedies if the agency stonewalls.
There are three ways to proceed if the government agency is recalcitrant or if you do not accept the explanation for nondisclosure. (The agency has to describe what it is refusing to disclose and the exemption relied on.)
1. Complain to the governing body. You may appear at a public meeting of the agency’s governing body (city council, board of supervisors, district board) and speak during the time allotted for public comment (required by the Brown Act and shown on the meeting agenda). Speakers usually have a few minutes to talk about items within the body’s jurisdiction that are not on the agenda. Plenty of time to tell the board what happened and request that it direct staff to be more responsive. This can get the attention of an agency that is ignoring you or dismissing your request out of hand. (It won’t work with a department headed by an elected official like the sheriff or district attorney.) It’s better practice to contact the agency chief executive or attorney before you address the governing body.
2. Complain to local law enforcement. This is usually the district attorney, sometimes the city attorney. These prosecutors have the authority to investigate and take legal action to enforce compliance. You can also write to the county grand jury, which can investigate, make findings and write reports that require a response but cannot order action.
3. Complain to Superior Court. Courts have the final say and can order compliance with the law. The problem with this approach is that lawyers are necessary for success in court; their time is costly and the cost of litigation usually exceeds the financial stake of an ordinary person in disclosure. There are organizations with lawyers that advocate for compliance with open meeting and public records laws. Community and environmental organizations sometimes have lawyers that will pursue disclosure; if the government conduct is sufficiently arrogant or reprehensible, it may be possible to persuade a local lawyer to take the case at reasonable rates or in the hope of winning court-ordered attorneys fees.
21 comments on this article. Read/Add
# # # #