Some state and local entities in California have stopped responding to requests made under the Public Records Act amid changes to operations due to the COVID-19 health emergency. FAC, SPJ NorCal and a coalition of other advocacy groups issued a joint statement urging governments to commit to transparency and follow California law. The following is a sample response letter that journalists and members of the public can submit to any entity in California that has refused to process a request citing delays related to COVID-19.
Sample PRA Response Letter
Re: DATE response public records request
I write to urge the _______ [name of government entity/agency] to reevaluate its response to my request made under the California Public Records Act.
[Restate the records requests and the date submitted and quote the entity’s response and date]
The [name of government entity/agency’s] moratorium on processing CPRA requests, and its constructive denial of this request, has no basis in the law. As you know, “access to information concerning the conduct of the people’s business is a fundamental and necessary right of every person in this state.” See Cal. Gov. Code § 6250. The Legislature enacted the CPRA specifically “to safeguard the accountability of government to the public, for secrecy is antithetical to a democratic system of government of the people, by the people and for the people.” San Gabriel Tribune v. Superior Court, 143 Cal. App. 3d 762, 771-72 (1983).
Moreover, the right of access to public records is enshrined in the state Constitution. See Cal. Const., art. I, § 3(b)(2). That right remains in force today, and neither the Governor nor the Legislature has acted to limit the rights provided by the CPRA. In other words, the right of public access under California law is indeed “essential,” and agencies must treat it as such.
The coronavirus pandemic is not the state’s first major crisis, and the Legislature has never authorized the type of delay that [name of government entity/agency] seeks to impose. The CPRA is clear that “every person has a right to inspect any public record” and that public agencies must respond to a request for copies of public records “within 10 days from receipt of the request.” Cal. Gov. Code § 6253(c). That deadline may be extended in certain “unusual circumstances.” Id. But in no case does the CPRA allow extensions of “more than 14 days” and, in any event, the agency “shall state the estimated date and time when the records will be made available.” See id. Nothing in the CPRA allows an agency to suspend compliance with the CPRA indefinitely.
Accordingly, the [name of government entity/agency] must comply with its obligations under the CPRA and state Constitution. The public’s continued and unimpeded right to learn and understand how its government operates is unquestionably vital. I can appreciate that everyone is working to overcome challenges presented by COVID-19. But in trying and uncertain times, the need for transparency is only heightened, and the public’s right to know cannot simply be set aside.
[OPTIONAL: Open-government advocates recently released this joint letter urging governments to commit to transparency and comply with the law.]
[OPTIONAL: You may also wish to Copy the elected officials of whatever agency it is, or the appointed if it is to, for example, a regional water or air quality board, etc., in an effort to alert government officials outside the agency.]
Courtesy of FAC and SPJ NorCal’s Freedom of Information Committee