Q: My non-profit organization intends to request a large number of public records from the California Department of Health Care Services.
At this point, our questions are strategic.
For example: are we likely to make more progress with a reluctant government agency by a series of requests, none of which is, in itself, unduly burdensome? Or are we likely to make faster progress by asking for everything we want and, when we are refused, starting the litigation process sooner rather than later?
Q: From what I understand, you intend to submit a large public records request to the California Department of Health Care Services, and anticipate the agency will not be forthcoming with records. You want to know if it would be strategically faster to submit rolling requests, or one large request to expedite your access to the court system, if necessary.
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. There are two methods by which members of the public can request and access records. First, a requester can request to inspect records in person by invoking Government Code § 6253(a), which provides, “[p]ublic records are open to inspection at all times during the office hours of the state or local agency and every person has a right to inspect any public record, except as hereafter provided.” Under this method, any member of the public should presumptively be able to walk into an agency’s office during regular hours and be given access to public records upon request. Second, a request for copies of records may be made (whether in person or in writing ), although when this provision is invoked, the agency is given time – typically 10 days – to respond for the request and provide the requester with copies. Gov’t Code § 6253(b).
The volume of your request should have no bearing upon whether the records are disclosed. The challenge with any PRA request is ensuring that it is broad enough to capture all the records you are seeking, and yet focused enough so that the agency will know what to look for.
The PRA requires the agency assist you in making a focused and effective request that reasonably describes identifiable records. Gov’t Code § 6253.1. Additionally, the request is made in writing, and the agency refuses to provide a certain record it must cite any exemptions it is claiming and describe how the exemption applies to the records. Gov’t Code § 6253(c).
The first step, of course, is simply making the request. When I make a request, I typically first consider what categories of information I’m seeking – e.g., the subject areas I’m interested in – and then ask for any and all records related to those categories (bullet points work well for breaking down the categories).
From there, hopefully the agency will work with you to focus your request so you get what you are looking for.
You can find more information about how to submit a Public Records Act request, including a sample letter, here.
Bryan Cave LLP is general counsel for the First Amendment Coalition and responds to First Amendment Coalition 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.