How Open are Cities to Public Records Requests?

Public records actGovernment code section 6250-6270 (a.k.a. California Public Records Act) requires that public agencies (broadly construed to include cities, counties, school districts, and boards, commissions and agencies) make available to the general public and other agencies all records generated in the course of conducting public business. But how well do public agencies implement the public records law?

Making the law known to the public and providing some guidance for requests is key to shining a light on the people’s business. After we filed our own public records request in Beverly Hills, we wanted some basis of comparison for our city’s public records request page. We had a look at nine regional cities (plus the County of Los Angeles) to see how they serve the spirit of the California Public Records Act.

We found that they fell into one of three categories: local governments that actually promote accessibility; those that merely acknowledge the law by posting information about it; and those that provide little or no information leaving the public out in the cold. One local government – Culver City – achieves some distinction by neither posting information nor acknowledging an email sent to the City Clerk about the law. That’s a FAIL!

Los Angeles County gold medalAnd the winner is….County of Los Angeles! Surprisingly, the least-representative governmental body in the country is also the gold standard where promotion of the records act is concerned. The County’s information page promotes disclosure in spirit, explains the legislation, and includes the actual statutory language. It also mentions the availability of cost-free inspection (few cities do) and allows for decentralized records queries (no need to go through the Clerk). The County also charges the least ($.03/page) for copies if they’re needed. As an added bonus, it is the only one to explicitly stipulate an exemption for media requests. (Bloggers take note: copies are free!)

Los Angeles & Glendale tie for the Silver honor.

City of Los Angeles and Glendale are both high scorers for posting information pages that also promote access to records. Glendale trumps Los Angeles by linking to the state legislation and making its request page findable from the city’s homepage search box (few do). At the same time, Los Angeles, and not Glendale, mentions the availability of cost-free inspection. That’s key because cost, particularly copy costs that can accrue with the collection of records, can dissuade a public records request. And we don’t want that. (Note that neither city links expressly provides for a media exception, however, though it may exist but not be disclosed.)

Of the other seven local governments we examined, only two of them post substantive information about the availability of public records: West Hollywood & Beverly Hills. Each posts an information page findable from the search box. Both, for better or worse, centralize requests through the City Clerk’s office (perhaps because they’re smaller cities). But West Hollywood distinguishes itself by mentioning that all-important cost-free inspection. Beverly Hills makes no mention of cost-free inspection, and its schedule of copy fees implies that cost-free inspection is not optional. Beverly Hills also provides scant information on its How to Request Public Records page.

So we’ll grudgingly give the Bronze to West Hollywood. Grudgingly because its information page states without enthusiasm, “It is the goal of the City of West Hollywood to comply.” So much for the spirit of the law!

Santa Monica, Burbank, Malibu and Culver City make no information available. Santa Monica provides only a Building & Safety records request form, but an emailed response from the Clerk did make a standard request form available. In our view that’s not upholding the spirit of the law, though.

Comparing the Local Governments

Agency Award Describes the act? Includes the law’s language? Notes free inspection? Links to form?
Los Angeles County Gold award! Thorough explanation of the law and includes the language. Yes Yes Yes No
City of Glendale Silver award (tie). Glendale provides a brief description but does link to the state legislation and includes a form in page. Makes the page findable from homepage search. Yes No Yes Yes
City of Los Angeles Silver (tie). Restates the spirit of the law in a thorough manner but doesn’t state the law’s language. Yes No Yes No
City of West Hollywood Bronze. Grudging nod to the law but does note free inspection and provides contact phone numbers too. Can find it from the search box. Yes No Yes Yes
City of Beverly Hills No medal winner. Only somewhat informative but doesn’t even note the state law. Dual links variously point to the request form and a generic city email contact page. Yes No No Yes
City of Malibu Only links to a fillable form but does note free inspection and helpfully provides a fee schedule for copies. No No Yes Yes
City of Burbank Not much here – just a link to a form. City Clerk position is vacant. Not a good sign! No No No Yes
City of Santa Monica Disappointment: there’s not even a description page for the records act. The form supposed to be posted really wasn’t. No No No No
Culver City Culver City is so lame that it posts nothing and can’t even be bothered to respond to an email query. FAIL No No No No

Note that none of these cities have been tested for response times or effectiveness. Our purpose here was to know whether local governments erected barriers (either implied or explicit) to the disclosure of information in accord with the law. We found none of commission, but somewhat disappointingly we did find that four of nine local governments sinned by omission in not providing information.

Public Records Act Award Winners

  • Gold practices award: County of Los Angeles for promoting the California Public Records Act & expressly noting a media exception.
  • Silver award: City of Glendale & City of Los Angeles for raising public awareness about the California Public Records Act.
  • Bronze award: City of West Hollywood for at least mentioning cost-free inspection.

The raspberry goes to Culver City for posting nothing and not even responding to a query!