Groups Urge Mendocino County to Repeal Unlawful Public Records Fee Ordinance

Letter urges county officials to stop unlawful practice of charging high fees to respond to California Public Records Act requests

April 27, 2023


The First Amendment Coalition and ACLU of Northern California today called on Mendocino County to repeal an unlawful ordinance that imposes high fees on public records requesters.

In a letter sent today, lawyers for FAC and the ACLU told members of the Mendocino County Board of Supervisors that their organizations, joined by The Mendocino Voice, Northern California Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, and the Willits Environmental Center, plan to file a lawsuit if the county does not repeal the ordinance at its next meeting, set for May 9. 

The organizations’ call for repeal comes after a member of the board of supervisors, Ted Williams, announced during a recent public meeting he would bring a motion to repeal Ordinance No. 4507, which has faced public opposition.

Passed in July 2022, Ordinance No. 4507 directs the county to charge between $20 to $150 per hour of staff time spent locating or reviewing public records requested under the California Public Records Act, or CPRA. But California’s open-government laws do not allow agencies to demand payment to cover the cost of staff time to respond to requests. Such fees are a threat to an open and accountable government.

FAC, press groups, and other community members have condemned the policy. In February, FAC noted the law “erects fee barriers that deprive the public of their rights under the California Public Records Act and California Constitution to access information,” and previously had warned the county the fee ordinance was unlawful. And despite a policy that would waive some fees for certain members of the media, a broad coalition of news organizations issued an open letter opposing the fees, writing the “new fees violate state law and present an unreasonably high burden on members of the public, who play a crucial oversight role in Mendocino County.” 

Williams did not disclose why he was making the motion during Tuesday’s meeting. But as today’s letter states, the organizations were on the eve of filing a lawsuit to challenge the ordinance, and the supervisors were likely aware of this.

“​​Time is of the essence because every day that this Ordinance is still in effect, members of the public are subject to a financial barrier that deprives them of the transparency rights guaranteed by the CPRA and California Constitution,” the letter says. In addition to seeking repeal of the ordinance, the lawyers demanded the county withdraw any assessments for fees under the ordinance and process immediately any pending public record requests without charging fees for locating, reviewing, or redacting the requested records.