Shasta County Repeals Illegal Fee Law Following FAC and ACLU Demand


SAN RAFAEL, Calif. – The Shasta County Board of Supervisors voted last night to repeal a local law that imposed illegal fees for copies of public records that could run into the thousands of dollars. 

The vote came after the First Amendment Coalition, the ACLU of Northern California, and local media organizations demanded the County stop charging these fees, which are not allowed by the California Public Records Act. It’s the latest development in FAC’s and ACLU’s statewide effort to combat excessive fees that threaten to price the public out of public records.

Passed in January 2021, the Shasta County ordinance imposed a charge of $25 per hour for staff time spent “locating, retrieving, reviewing, preparing, copying, and furnishing,” public records despite state law limiting fees to the “direct cost of duplication,” with few exceptions.

The California Supreme Court confirmed in 2020 that fees for ancillary costs like searching for and redacting records create an illegal financial barrier to transparency and accountability in government. After an investigation by FAC and ACLU, the organizations, representing news outlets Shasta Scout and the Record Searchlight, sent a letter to Shasta County to repeal its ordinance.

Before the letter was sent, Shasta County had billed the Record Searchlight $1,200 to fulfill a request for records showing whom the County had charged for requests under the ordinance. It sent the ACLU a $3,950 bill for records regarding the County’s implementation of California’s Racial Justice Act. And the County told Shasta Scout it would cost an estimated $4,750 to produce an official’s emails, even though the request had been limited to emails containing just six keywords over a six month period. 

“We welcome the Board’s vote to restore the people’s access to public records. Democracy depends on freedom of information, but information is not free when only the rich can afford it,” said David Loy, Legal Director of the First Amendment Coalition.

“The ACLU firmly believes that public records should not be held for ransom, and only available to the wealthy. We are glad that the Board heeded our demand to remove this barrier to transparency,” said Chessie Thacher, Senior Staff Attorney for the ACLU of Northern California.  

Shasta County is the fifth county to repeal its public records fee ordinance after an investigation by FAC and ACLU revealed that at least eight California counties had illegal laws on the books allowing them to charge excessive fees. Last year, Mendocino County repealed a similar ordinance after months of public pushback, including a demand from FAC, the ACLU, the Mendocino Voice, Northern California Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, and the Willits Environmental Center. 

Recently, Siskiyou, Tuolumne, and Ventura Counties followed suit and repealed their illegal fee ordinances. 

Three other counties — Los Angeles, Calaveras, and Santa Cruz — still have similar laws on the books. However, there is no indication those counties actively enforce such fees, the FAC/ ACLU investigation found.

As FAC and the ACLU said in the demand to Shasta County, “every day that the Ordinance remains in effect, the public is subject to a financial barrier depriving them of their transparency rights under the CPRA and California Constitution.” The Shasta County Board of Supervisors’ vote marks the repeal of the last actively enforced ordinance of its kind and serves as a reminder that government transparency is for all of the people, not just for those who can afford it.

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