California Public Records Act

Gerrie Schipske

Here’s more on the ABCs of Local Government. How to use the law to make city government accountable!

California Public Records Act

An overview: The law was enacted in 1968 and revised in 2021.

Based on the premise that secrecy is antithetical to a democratic system of “government of the people, by the people and for the people.”

Provides for two different rights of access. One is a right to inspect public records: “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, except as hereafter provided.” The other is the right to prompt availability of copies of public records:

Each state or local agency, upon a request for a copy of records that reasonably describes an identifiable record or records, shall make the records promptly available to any person upon payment of fees covering direct costs of duplication, or a statutory fee if applicable. Upon request, an exact copy shall be provided unless it is impractical to do so.

There are over 75 exemptions from disclosure but they must be “narrow in scope” and not “overly broad.” There is a balancing test, known as the “public interest” or “catchall” provision which allows local agencies to justify withholding any record by demonstrating that on the facts of a particular case, the public interest in nondisclosure clearly outweighs the public interest in disclosure. When a document is identified as potentially responsive to a public records request, but it contains personal or other exempt information as protected under the law, it will be redacted prior to release.

Exemptions from disclosure generally include: personnel, medical, or similar records, the disclosure of which would constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy; records related to pending litigation; investigative records; preliminary drafts that typically are not retained; attorney-client privileged records; trade secrets; records that would harm the public interest if released; and other material made confidential by state and federal statutes.

In November 2004, the voters approved Proposition 59, which amended the California Constitution to include the public’s right to access public records.

In June 2014, the voters approved Proposition 42, which amended the California Constitution “to ensure public access to the meetings of public bodies and the writings of public officials and agencies.”

What is a Public Record?

The PRA defines “public records” as “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 physical form or characteristics.”

A writing is defined as “any handwriting, typewriting, printing, photostatting, photographing, photocopying, transmitting by electronic mail or facsimile, and every other means of recording upon any tangible thing any form of communication or representation, including letters, words, pictures, sounds, or symbols, or combinations thereof, and any record thereby created, regardless of the manner in which the record has been stored.”

Emails and text messages relating to local agency business on local agency and/or personal accounts and devices are public records. Gov. Code, § 7920.530.

How to Make a Public Records Request in Long Beach

The city manager’s office is responsible for processing public records requests.

For non-police records, go online at: http://www.longbeach.gov/PRA

For police records: http://www.longbeach.gov/pra-lbpd – California SB 1421 created exceptions that allow the public to obtain peace officer and custodial officer records relating to the report, investigation, or findings of:

  • An incident regarding an officer-involved shooting at a person.
  • An incident involving the use of force by an officer resulting in death or great bodily injury.
  • An incident involving a sustained finding of sexual assault by an officer involving a member of the public.
  • An incident involving a sustained finding of dishonesty by an officer directly related to the reporting, investigation, or prosecution of a crime or an investigation of misconduct by another officer.

The city will respond within 10 days of receipt of a public records request as to whether disclosable public records exist. In some cases, a 14-day extension to respond may be necessary. If the city determines non-exempt, disclosable public records exist, they will be made available within a reasonable timeframe and following the required payment, if applicable, for copies of such records.

The PRA specifically states the agency must respond within 10 days (or 24 days if extended) to notify the requester whether records exist and will be disclosed (Cal. Govt. Code Section 6253 (c)).

While the California PRA provides members of the public with access to public records, it is not unlimited in its scope. California courts have acknowledged that members of the public may request documents from municipalities pursuant to the PRA even if they are unable to precisely identify the documents sought, but the request must still reasonably describe the information contained in the records sought such that the municipality can locate the records with “reasonable effort.” [Cal. First Amend. Coalition v. Superior Court (1998) 67 Cal.App.4th 159.]

The request must be focused and specific [Rogers v. Superior Court (1993) 19 Cal.App.4th 469.] and clear enough so that the agency can decipher what record or records are being sought. Moreover, the city is not required by law to create a record or list from an existing record.  

What to Do If the City Will Not Produce the Public Record?

Contact the First Amendment Coalition: https://firstamendmentcoalition.org/legal-hotline/.

The Legal Hotline gives users quick, free access to FAC’s lawyers for questions about access to public records and your right to attend government meetings in California; access to court documents and proceedings in California and federal courts; and First Amendment protections for freedom of speech and freedom of the press.

Fun Facts

The texting, messaging and emailing councilmembers do during council meetings are public records and must be disclosed if requested – even if they do it on personal phones or laptops – and their communications have anything to do with city business.

Next: How the Council Agenda Gets Developed

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