What is the California Public Records Act?

The California Constitution requires every local agency to comply with the California Public Records Act (“CPRA”). The CPRA states that the right of access to information is a fundamental and necessary right of every person in the state. The CPRA is a vital component of California’s commitment to operating an open government and democracy. The act enables the public to monitor the functioning of their government. As a result the CPRA applies to counties, cities, school districts, special districts, community college districts, and other public agencies.

In particular, the CPRA provides that all persons have the right to inspect and copy disclosable public records.  Any individual may submit a public records request by making a focused and clear document request that enables an agency to determine which records are being sought.  Under the Act, all governmental records shall be disclosed to the public, unless there is a sufficient legal basis to withhold the documents.

The CPRA 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.” Writing is broadly defined. It includes any emails, faxes, handwritings, printings, and other tangible things. As mentioned above, not all government records are subject to disclosure. Instead, the CPRA balances the right of privacy, public access, and the need for governmental efficiency and effectiveness in determining whether a particular document should be disclosed or withheld. Consequently, there are several exemptions to the CPRA. However, when government agencies claim an exemption to disclosure of all or a part of a record, they must identify the relevant exemption.

A local agency has a limited number of possible responses once the local agency has received a public records request. Generally, if a search yields no responsive records, the agency may simply inform the requester that no responsive documents were located. If the agency locates the responsive record, it must decide whether to disclose the record, withhold the record, or disclose the record in a redacted form.

Time is critical in responding to a public records request. A local agency must respond promptly to a public records request. Specifically, a local agency must notify the requester promptly and must state whether the records will be disclosed within 10 calendar days from receipt of the request for copies. This time frame may be extended under certain circumstances. Lastly, the CPRA provides for the recovery of courts costs and attorneys’ fees to plaintiffs who successfully seek a court ruling ordering the disclosure of withheld public records.

If you are a local agency seeking help complying with the CPRA or an individual attempting to obtain a public record, please feel free to contact our office. At Griswold LaSalle, our staff has extensive experience counseling clients on responding to CPRA requests and obtaining public records from local agencies.