Q: We are doing an investigation about a non-profit organization in California. We tried to request construction permit information from the county where the organization’s building is located. The county denied our request for this information, claiming that this is not available to the public. Is it legal to deny this kind of information? Please help us to understand how to obtain such information for our investigation.
A: It is not clear from your inquiry what entity you sought the records from, but if it is a state or local agency, you should be able to access its records by making a California Public Records Act request. Under the CPRA, any record “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” 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. Cal. Gov. Code § 6252(e). If a government agency is claiming that certain records are exempt under the CPRA, it is required to cite the specific exemption and explain how it applies to the records. Gov’t Code § 6253(c).
While the CPRA contains numerous exemptions from its disclosure requirements, primarily within section 6254, none are directly related to building permits. If there is information in the building permits that is exempt from disclosure, the burden is on the agency to demonstrate that fact and redact those portions of the record before providing the remaining portions to the requester.
Typically, we advise requesters to write to the agency reminding it of its duty under the CPRA to “promptly” provide records. If the agency still refuses to respond, your only ultimate recourse is to file a lawsuit to enforce your rights, though continuing a conversation with the agency, pointing out its misinterpretation can also lead to results. It might be most effective to write the agency first and remind it not only of its duties under the CPRA, but that should you be required to enforce your rights under the CPRA in court, the agency would be required to pay your attorneys’ fees should you prevail. Gov’t Code § 6259.
More information about the CPRA, including your options for enforcing the Act as a private citizen, can be found at the First Amendment Coalition’s website 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.