A&A: Are a Water Utility’s Shut-Off Statistics Public Records in California?

Q: Under CPRA, is it possible to request a list of addresses for residences from the city that have had their water shut off in the past 30 days if I ask for them to redact all other information including name and phone number?

A: The California Public Records Act (CPRA) requires public agencies to disclose public records unless some exemption applies.  Public records 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.” Gov’t Code § 6252(e). 

Unfortunately, there is a specific exemption under the California Public Records Act that exempts from disclosure “the name, credit history, utility usage data, home address, or telephone number of utility customers to local agencies,” though it goes on to state that such information may be made released “[u]pon determination by the local agency that the public interest in disclosure of the information clearly outweighs the public interest in nondisclosure.”  Gov’t Code 6254.16(f).  The legislative history and bill digest for this exemption are informative; the bill digest reads: “This bill would prohibit the release of specified information about private citizens who are utility customers of local agencies contained in public records, such as name, address, and telephone number.  Exceptions are made for authorized family members, police, courts, official government business, and where the utility determines that the public interest in disclosure clearly outweighs the public interest in nondisclosure.”

That said, it may still be worthwhile to submit a public records request. For your initial missive, I would recommend sending the city a written request specifically describing the records that you seek, and specifying—as you did in your email below—that names and other personal identifiers can be redacted.  Under the Public Records Act, the city should respond to your request within 10 days, letting you know whether it will release the records or not, and if not, exactly why (citing the specific exemption and describing how it applies to the records that you seek).  Gov’t Code 6253(c). After you hear back from the city, you can then make your case with respect to the public interest in releasing this information, if necessary. 

You can find a sample PRA request letter on the FAC’s website, available here.

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. I apologize for the delay in getting back to you.

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