Q: On May 2 I submitted a request to the County Fire Department (Risk Management Division) for 90 individual 911 calls during a major wildfire. I selected the calls from a 200+ page document that the Risk Management people provided to me, in the format that was requested by them. I have followed up a couple of times and the last I heard on May 10 was “I forwarded your request to the bureau that oversees our dispatch center. It’s an extremely large request so I anticipate it will take several months to compile.”
Since it has been more than 24 days since my submitted request, and they have not given me a definitive answer about the time it will take to send us the recordings or the state of them (if any of them will be withheld or fully redacted), is there something I can do to get more clarity from them? Is 90 calls (out of thousands) really considered large to them?
A: Under California’s Public Records Act (“PRA”), “‘[p]ublic records’ includes 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 section 6252(e) – and must be disclosed upon request unless a specific provision of the Act or other law exempts them from disclosure. After an agency receives a PRA request, it has 10 days to respond to the request, though it may claim an additional 14 days under certain circumstances (and they must write to you and let you know they’re taking the additional time). The agency must disclose the records “promptly” after identifying whether it does indeed have records responsive to the request. Gov’t Code § 6253(c).
Sadly, governmental agencies often blow the deadlines prescribed by the PRA. Short of filing a lawsuit to enforce your rights under the PRA (which could have the effect of further delaying your acquisition of the records you seek), the best strategy when this happens is to write to the agency reminding it of its duty to respond to your request within the time frames provided in the Act. See Gov’t Code 6253(c). You could also remind the agency that should you be forced to bring a lawsuit to enforce your rights under the PRA, it would be required to pay your attorneys’ fees. Gov’t Code 6259. Hopefully a short follow-up will motivate the agency to both provide you with a written response to your request, as well as to promptly provide you with copies of responsive records.
Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner 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. No attorney-client relationship has been formed by way of this response.