Taxpayers in California have the California Public Records Act (CPRA) on their side to help them learn more about what their government is doing with their money. Some CPRA requests answer questions and fill in the gaps about how decisions were made. Other requests can give information that can help change government for the better.
There’s a problem in Costa Mesa with the formation of yet another ‘task force’ that doesn’t have to follow the CPRA, according to the city attorney. A ‘task force’ is like the 2 man committees that lead to 213 City employees being pink-sllpped in 2011 because there was a “budget crisis.” In many ways, a task force is a secret committee that can be used to set policy without public input. The CPRA was enacted into law to help balance the interests of the taxpayers and the government they pay for.
The CPRA is to be interpreted in favor of the taxpayer. If documents are withheld, the agency must justify withholding the records either by a narrow interpretation of the statute or by clearly explaining why the taxpayer is better served by not disclosing the records.
The legal details of the CPRA are found in Government Code 6250-6274.48. The basic details are:
° All requests must be in writing and all replies must be in writing. This is important because CPRA requests are effectively legal document requests, also known as document subpoenas.
° You can ask to inspect (read) records or have copies made for you. You can’t be told you can only see records but not make copies – you are always allowed to have copies made.
° There is a charge for copies (commonly about $0.10/pg in Orange County), but there is no charge for producing the documents or inspecting the records. You cannot be charged for the staff time to search for the records.
° Records cannot be provided only in electronic form but you are allowed to ask that records be provided to you electronically (PDF is common) if the files are already available.
° The CPRA is to be interpreted in favor of the taxpayer, not in favor of the agency.
° Records must be provided within 10 days of the request. This isn’t 10 days to decide if the records are going to be provided – it’s “Provide the records in 10 days.”
° The agency can ask for another 14 days to produce the records. This really should only happen once, if needed at all.
° The agency needs to help you identify the records you want.
° You can’t ask for a record to be created or data to be compiled for you. If a data table or summary appears in a report, you can ask for that. If it doesn’t exist, you can’t ask for it to be created for you, but you can ask for the records needed to make it and do the work of creating the data table or summary yourself.
There are a few areas where records are exempt from disclosure. These are the areas that cities commonly deal with:
° Attorney-client discussions (legal advice only, not everything an attorney touches is ‘legal advice’)
° Drafts of documents
° Home addresses
° Personnel and medical data are exempt only if the disclosure reveals intimate details.
° Financial data submitted for licenses.
° Records showing the deliberative process (appointment calendars, applications, phone records, etc) can be withheld from disclosure on if ‘the public interest is served by not making the record(s) public clearly outweighs the public interest served by disclosure of the record(s). (CPRA Section 6255; Times Mirror v. Superior Ct, 53 Cal. 3D 1325 (1991); CFAC v. Superior Ct., 67 Cal.App. 4Th 159 (1998); Rogers v. Superior Ct., 19 Cal. App. 4Th 469 )1993). If records are withheld from disclosure, the agency must explain why the public interest is better served by not disclosing the records – this is explain, not just tell the taxpayer they can’t see the records. The records must be disclosed if the interest in secrecy does not clearly outweigh the taxpayer’s right to know. The records must be given to the taxpayers “whatever the incidental impact on the deliberative process.” (Times Mirror v. Superior Ct.)
° Police records like incident reports, rap sheets and arrest reports are exempt from disclosure, but the police blotter is not. Police and judicial records have their own rules in many cases
° Litigation records are only exempt until the lawsuit is over.
The First Amendment Project http://www.thefirstamendment.org/ca-pra.html has information and a handy guide to the CPRA. Californians Aware http://calaware.org/ is another group that focuses efforts on the right to access public records and meetings.
If your request is denied, ask for specifics and ask for a way for at least some of the documents to be provided. Always remember that the CPRA is to be interpreted in favor of the taxpayer and the agency is required by law to help you find your records. You can also seek help from others who have done record requests to find alternate ways of getting the information you need.
According to the City, a task force doesn’t have to give copies of their records to the taxpayers because they are exempt from the CPRA. The City can fix this problem by a simple determination that the task force will follow the CPRA. Make the task force follow the CPRA and continue whatever work the group was doing, with the taxpayers able to see what is going on.