Q: I have been denied my request for a copy of a videotape of a Town Hall Meeting that was streamed live over the Internet. They claim they can not release the video for personnel reasons
I was also denied access to the County Sheriff Department’s “Pink Slips,” which are held in the reception office of the department. These documents are made available to the local paper – but not to me? This does not seem right.
A: From your inquiry I understand that you have two concerns. First, you have made a request for a copy of a video of Town Hall Meeting and been denied for employee personnel reasons. Second, the Sheriff’s Department has denied your request to access “Pink Slips,” which are regularly disclosed to other members of the public.
California’s open meeting law, the Brown Act, specifically provides:
Any audio or video recording of an open and public meeting made for whatever purpose by or at the direction of the local agency shall be subject to inspection pursuant to the California Public Records Act (Chapter 3.5 (commencing with Section 6250) of Division 7 of Title 1), but, notwithstanding Section 34090, may be erased or destroyed 30 days after the recording. Any inspection of an audio or video recording shall be provided without charge on equipment made available by the local agency. Government Code section 54953.5(b).
Assuming the video recording of the town hall meeting still exists, the agency should provide you with a copy pursuant to this code section.
Further, it does not seem that the personnel exemption cited would apply, given that exemption is intended to protect truly private, personal information, and not records that contain information related to official business. It is highly unlikely that such private information would have been disclosed at the public meeting for which you are seeking a videotape. I simply cannot fathom this exemption justifying the agency from withholding the videotape in the situation you describe.
With respect to the Public Records Act, the law does generally require that once records are shown to one person, they must then be shown to all subsequent requesters, even if the records were otherwise exempt from disclosure, and even if the initial disclosure was made to a person who was the subject of the records. See Gov’t. Code section 6254.5; Black Panther Party v. Kehoe, 42 Cal. App. 3d 645 (1974).
This provision addresses both of your inquiries regarding the video and the pink slips. If the agencies have disclosed the records you seek to other members of the public, both agencies have waived any exemptions from disclosure they may have otherwise been able to claim and you should be able to access the records.
You may want to write back to both agencies, reminding them that if they have disclosed the records you seek to other members of the public, they can no longer claim the exemptions from disclosure.
You can also remind the agencies that should you be compelled to bring a lawsuit to enforce your requests, they would be required to pay your attorney’s fees should (or when) you prevail. Gov’t Code § 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, Gov’t Code § 6259(d).
You can find more information about the Public Records Act, including a sample request letter and a CPRA primer, on the FAC’s website here.
Bryan Cave 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 unless separately retained.