A&A Board member vs. public member rights under PRA

Q: I am an elected board member of my local Fire Protection District. I have requested information from our fire chief (e.g. audio/video recording of board meetings, copies of invoices) and I have been told that as a board member I must follow different rules then the public. I have been told I must make my request in writing to the board chair, and then he would put it on next month’s agenda for discussion. So far, I haven’t found anything of relevance in the Public Records Act. What are your thoughts?

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A: I am sorry to hear the Fire Protection District requires you follow different procedures to obtain public records as an elected board member.

While a sitting board member may not have standing to sue to enforce the Brown Act (See Holbrook v. City of Santa Monica, 144 Cal. App. 4th 1242, 1259 (2006)), nothing limits your rights under the Public Records Act:

“Notwithstanding the definition of ‘member of the public’ in Section 6252, an elected member or officer of any state or local agency is entitled to access to public records of that agency on the same basis as any other person. Nothing in this section shall limit the ability of elected members or officers to access public records permitted by law in the administration of their duties.”  Gov’t Code § 6252.5.

I see the District requires you make a written request—while the Public Records Act does not require you make your request in writing, we always recommend you submit a written request under Gov’t Code § 6253(c), which will require the District respond in writing and state any exemptions it is claiming that apply to the records and exactly how they apply.  You may want to highlight that, pursuant to Government Code section 6252.5, your status as a board member does not create an exception to your right to public records.

Additionally, should you be required to bring a lawsuit to enforce your rights under the Public Records Act, you will be entitled to recover your attorneys’ fees, should you prevail. Gov’t Code § 6259(d).

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.