A&A: Animal shelter won’t disclose contact info on local cat trapper

Q: Our local county animal shelter take trapped cats from the public. Sometimes the cats that are trapped belong to others. As a cat rescue, we attempt to identify situations like this, and seek to return them to their owner. In a recent incident, the trapping person refused to give the address where the cat was trapped. We would like to talk to the trapper and see if we can resolve the situation before the cat is euthanized. Our county has told us that they cannot give us the contact information– even as a public record.

I have read the CPRA and cannot see this as an exception. Is it?

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A: I’m sorry to hear that the County refuses to provide contact information for the cat trapper you seek.  If that information is a public record (i.e., used by the County) I cannot see what exception it would fall under.

Under California’s Public Records Act, public records —which include “any writing containing information relating to the conduct of the public’s business prepared, owned, used, or retained by any state or local agency regardless of physical form or characteristics,” Gov’t Code § 6252(e) — are presumed to be open to the public and must be disclosed unless a specific provision of the Act or other law exempts them from disclosure.

Information “relating to the conduct of the public’s business” is interpreted broadly, and only purely personal information is exempt, i.e., the shopping list phoned from home, or the letter to a public officer from a friend which is totally void of reference
to governmental activities.  See Assembly Comm. on Statewide Information Policy, Appendix 1 to Journal of Assembly (1970 Reg. Sess.) Final Report p. 9.

If the County prepares or uses the cat trapper information in connection with governmental activities (like the public animal shelter), this information would constitute a public record.  It appears from your question that you made a prior, informal records request for this information.  We always recommend making a request in writing, which obligates the County to respond in writing—however, regardless of form, the agency was required to cite any exemptions it is claiming and describe how the exemption applies to the records.  Gov’t Code § 6253(c).  It appears they did not, and we are left to speculate as to the basis of the claimed exemption.

They may claim the records fall under the personnel information exemption—personnel information is generally exempt when a public agency believes a request seeks information pertaining to a public official’s private or controversial information.  Gov’t
Code § 6254(c).

However, this exemption was created to protect intimate personal details, not official business judgments. See Bakersfield City School Dist. v. Superior Court, 118 Cal. App. 4th 1041, 1045 (2004).

Additionally, the County may attempt to fit the public records under the “catch-all” exemption, Government Code § 6255, which is a broad, yet undefined, exemption that provides that a record may be withheld if, on the facts of the particular case, the public interest served by not disclosing the record clearly outweighs the public interest served by disclosure of the record.  It does not appear that would be the case here.

I recommend you submit your request for the cat trapper information to the County in writing, to compel a written response.  If you make a written request, the County must determine whether the requested records are disclosable within 10 days of your request, and “promptly notify” you, in writing, if it will make the records available, or specifically state the exemption it is claiming and how it applies to the requested records.  Gov’tCode § 6253(c).

The County must also state the estimated date and time when disclosable records will be made available.  Gov’t Code § 6253(c).

The PRA requires agencies assist you in making a focused and effective request that reasonably describes identifiable records.  Gov’t Code § 6253.1.  You can find more information about the Public Records Act, including a sample request letter, in FAC’s Public Records Primer.

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.