The Public Records Act (the “PRA”) was passed into law by the California State Legislature in 1968. Through the law the Legislature “finds and declares that access to information concerning the conduct of the people's business is a fundamental and necessary right of every person in this state.” Based on that foundational principle, the law permits any member of the public to request records from government entities.
Because of the breadth of records that can be requested and the right of the public to inspect records, PRA requests can be challenging to respond to in an organized and efficient manner. Below are three tips to make the process more straightforward, organized, and efficient, producing a better result for both the requester and the public entity.
- Set a timeline upon receipt of the request
There are some key guidelines to follow so clear communication and expectations are maintained between the requester and the public entity when responding to a PRA request. To ensure the requester is kept informed of the status of the request and actions that are being taken to fulfill it, public entities should establish a clear timeline in their initial response sent to the requester. Below are three considerations to keep in mind when establishing a timeline and communicating with a requester:
- Initial response – Within calendar 10 days of receiving the request, the public entity is required to send a response. To set clear expectations, the response should outline that the request was received, whether the entity has or does not have responsive records, and when the public entity expects to be able to disclose any responsive records “prepared, owned, used, or retained” by the public entity. If this cannot be accomplished within 10 days and additional time is needed to search for records in field facilities, examine the contents of records, consult with another agency, or to compile electronic data then the response time can be extended by an additional 14 days. This extension must be done in writing and clearly communicate the reason for the extension.
- Be certain if certified payroll reports have been requested under Labor Code 1776 – When reviewing the details of the request, it is best to determine if the request being made is purely a Public Records Act request or a combination of a Public Records Act request and a Labor Code request. Labor Code section 1776 allows for Certified Payroll records to be requested and produced within 10 days of the request. If this kind of request is received, it should be acknowledged in the initial response.
- Extension of deadline – If the deadline established in the Initial Response cannot be met, the public entity should send a follow up correspondence establishing a new timeline for disclosure of the responsive records.
- Distinguish materials that are public records versus those that are not
The text of the PRA gives great flexibility to the requester when specifying what records they want to obtain. It is the public entity's responsibility to seek clarification when it is unclear what the requester is looking for. Clarification should be sought to avoid disclosing records that are not relevant to the request.
Public entities should also review the applicable statues and regulations to determine if a requested record is in fact a public record. A public record, according to the PRA, is “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.” Some public records are entirely protected based on one of the 76 exemptions found in the law and do not require disclosure when requested. In response to a request for one of these records the public entity can inform the requester that the records requested are not subject to disclosure.
- Review all materials closely for confidential information
Last, the public entity should carefully review materials that are determined to be both responsive and certainly public records. During that review, the public entity should redact any information that is confidential or legally privileged. For example, names, addresses, and social security number of employees may be included in certified payroll records which are responsive to a request. Under state law, this information should be redacted. To avoid disclosing confidential or privileged information the public entity should review the applicable exemptions and details of the request to determine if any redactions are required or applicable.
While PRA requests can be daunting and require a great amount of work, if a system is put in place to communicate effectively, review the request, and gather materials, the process can be much more efficient and successful. If you would like to discuss additional PRA details and information, please contact either Parker & Covert office.