Q: In response to our public records request for electronic data, public agencies have refused to release data in Excel format. They have instead given us pdfs or hard copies. Their reasons are vague, ranging from concerns we will manipulate the data to saying it’s not their policy to release data in that format. I recently received a raft of paper in the mail, clearly copies of spreadsheets. The county counsel said, “The District’s policy is to provide hard copy records, only, for administrative and security reasons.” Can you advise on how we should proceed? Thanks!
A: Under the Public Records Act, “any agency that has information that constitutes an identifiable public record not exempt from disclosure … that is in an electronic format shall make that information available in an electronic format when requested by any person.” Govt. Code § 6253.9.
Note, however, that if the agency does not already have the record in electronic form, the PRA does not require it to create an electronic version. Id. (see below for full text of Section 6253.9).
§ 6253.9. Information in electronic format
(a) Unless otherwise prohibited by law, any agency that has information that constitutes an identifiable public re-cord not exempt from disclosure pursuant to this chapter that is in an electronic format shall make that information available in an electronic format when requested by any person and, when applicable, shall comply with the following:
(1) The agency shall make the information available in any electronic format in which it holds the information.
(2) Each agency shall provide a copy of an electronic record in the format requested if the requested format is one that has been used by the agency to create copies for its own use or for provision to other agencies. The cost of duplication shall be limited to the direct cost of producing a copy of a record in an electronic format.
(b) Notwithstanding paragraph (2) of subdivision (a), the requester shall bear the cost of producing a copy of the record, including the cost to construct a record, and the cost of programming and computer services necessary to produce a copy of the record when either of the following applies:
(1) In order to comply with the provisions of subdivision(a), the public agency would be required to produce a copy of an electronic record and the record is one that is produced only at otherwise regularly scheduled intervals.
(2) The request would require data compilation, extraction, or programming to produce the record.
(c) Nothing in this section shall be construed to require the public agency to reconstruct a record in an electronic format if the agency no longer has the record available in an electronic format.
(d) If the request is for information in other than electronic format, and the information also is in electronic format, the agency may inform the requester that the information is available in electronic format.
(e) Nothing in this section shall be construed to permit an agency to make information available only in an electronic format.
(f) Nothing in this section shall be construed to require the public agency to release an electronic record in the electronic form in which it is held by the agency if its release would jeopardize or compromise the security or integrity of the original record or of any proprietary software in which it is maintained.
(g) Nothing in this section shall be construed to permit public access to records held by any agency to which access is otherwise restricted by statute.
It seems, therefore, that if the county has these Excel files in electronic format, then it should give those files to you in that format.
Holme Roberts & Owen LLP is general counsel for the First Amendment Coalition and responds to FAC hotline inquiries. In responding to these inquiries, we can give general information regarding open government and speech issues but cannot provide specific legal advice or representation.