A&A: School district claims too busy to fulfill document request

Q: I have made numerous attempts to view board meeting minutes, a contract with a specific vendor, payment documents to that vendor, and the names of the other bidders who were not selected for the position at the School District offices.

Each time they sent me away saying that they were too busy to get the documents for me, and I would have to send them a written request, which I did. Even so, they have still not responded to my request and hold their position that they are still too busy to get the documents for me to view. What can I do to FORCE them to allow me to view the documents?

The Los Angeles District Attorney’s office does not know who handles this type of problem. Please help.

A: The Public Records Act gives local agencies 10 days to respond to a request for a copy of a public record; the time for responding can be extended by the agency for an additional 14 days in “unusual circumstances.” Gov’t Code § 6253(b) and (c).

This section goes on to state: “No notice shall specify a date that would result in an extension for more than 14 days. When the agency dispatches the determination, and if the agency determines that the request seeks disclosable public records, the agency shall state the estimated date and time when the records will be made available.” Gov’t Code § 6253(c).

The code then states what might constitute “unusual circumstances,” including:

  • (1) The need to search for and collect the requested records from field facilities or other establishments that are separate from the office processing the request.
  • (2) The need to search for, collect, and appropriately examine a voluminous amount of separate and distinct records that are demanded in a single request.
  • (3) The need for consultation, which shall be conducted with all practicable speed, with another agency having substantial interest in the determination of the request or among two or more components of the agency having substantial subject matter interest therein.
  • (4) The need to compile data, to write programming language or a computer program, or to construct a computer report to extract data. Gov’t Code § 6253(c).

Additionally, access to copies of records is to be provided “promptly,” Gov’t Code § 6253(b) (emph. added), and “[n]othing in this chapter shall be construed to permit an agency to delay or obstruct the inspection or copying of public records. The notification of denial of any request for records required by Section 6255 shall set forth the names and titles or positions of each person responsible for the denial.” Gov’t Code § 6253(d).

Thus, the 10-day deadline is not a legal deadline for producing the actual records; however, under § 6253(b) and (d), once a determination has been made as to whether the records are disclosable, actual release of the records should promptly follow.

It sounds like the school district may not be complying with the statutory deadlines contained in the Act, and, in any case, is not providing the records “promptly,” as the Act requires.

To that end, you may want to again write to the school district, restating your request, and remind the district of its statutory duty to respond within ten days, as well as its duty to provide you with the records “promptly,” and to provide an estimated time and date of production.

If an agency refuses to provide records under the Act, the ultimate recourse is filing a lawsuit under Government Code Section 6259. Such lawsuits are typically initiated by a verified petition (i.e., a request filed under oath) that asks the court to issue a writ of mandate, which is a type of order directing the public agency to take a specified action.

Attorney’s fees are available to a plaintiff who prevails in litigation filed pursuant to the Act, Government Code section 6259(d).

In any follow-up correspondence you have with the school district regarding the fact that you have not received the requested records, you may want to point out that attorney’s fees are available should you take the agency to court and prevail.

If you are looking for an attorney to represent you in this matter, you might consider trying the FAC’s Lawyer’s Assistance Request Form at https://firstamendmentcoalition.org/lawyers-assistance-request-form/.

You might also find this link, which contains additional information about the Public Records Act, including a sample request letter, helpful: https://firstamendmentcoalition.org/category/resources/access-to-records/.

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.