Helping Our Peninsula's Environment


Public Records Overview

© Copyright David Dilworth 2002-2007

What's a Public Record?

Every piece of paper held by a government agency is owned by you and me. Each piece of paper is an individual public record. Some information (like your social security number) on some records are understandably secret from the general public, but in general almost all information on all public records is legally required to be available for you to read or copy. The primary exception is for Privacy Rights held by individuals; their personal information; e.g. address, phone number, sex, marital status, etc.

To the surprise of many people, when it comes to a government agency actually making those records available for you to read or copy, "your mileage may vary significantly." For many different reasons, government agencies have refused to reveal, have hidden, and even destroyed public records rather than have the public read them. One fellow in California was arrested for simply asking to see public records!

In the late 1990's Indiana conducted a nine-month statewide audit and found government officials flagrantly violating the state's open records laws by refusing to turn over obviously public information to citizens.

Indiana law enforcement agencies were found to be the worst offenders with an outrageous 30 percent compliance rate. "In response, the governor of Indiana appointed a state public records ombudsman, formed a task force to study problems with state public records laws, and issued warnings to offending agencies." California First Amendment Coalition article A small study in California found widespread violations of the public records law as well.

In my opinion, public records should be made available to you just as a library does Gladly, without delay and courteously. Maybe requiring agencies to hire a librarian to provide records would be a good step...

"Which Law do I use?"

There are different state and federal laws requiring agencies to provide you access to our records. The Federal Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA, is only for use with Federal agencies such as the Forest Service.

FOIA explicitly allows federal agencies to give you copies of records for free if you can demonstrate you are acting in the public interest. By contrast, the California Public Records Act, has no such explicit provision.

So "How Do I Start?"

In most cases it is easier to "catch more files with honey than with vinegar" so we agree with other experts who suggest you try to get the records with charm - quietly and informally - before raising the battle flag with the forms we have provided. Lower level staff are often very helpful. The forms we, and groups like Cal-Aware and California First Amendment Project, provide are generally for use when an agency employee refuses to let you see or copy the records.

HOPE's website provides you with forms we created which you can use to review public records.

HOPE regularly hosts an in depth workshop in how to obtain public records. Let us know if you would like to be notified of the next workshops.

Why isn't the Law Stronger?

Although California law provides the rare requirement (a Judge has no choice) that your attorney's fees be paid by the offending agency, some places have much stronger public records laws. Florida requires all information and records to be made publicly available except police home addresses. Wisconsin makes designated government officials personally responsible for making records available. A bill introduced in the California Senate would have provided $100 per day penalties for refusal to provide a record.

It appears one of biggest problems is enforcement. If a police officer issued a ticket to each staff person who fails to show us our records, perhaps agencies would take the laws far more seriously. What do you think?



Pacific Grove Makes a Big Step Forward to provide Public Records Access


HOPE Model Public Records Access Guidelines / Ordinance

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This Page Last Updated Dec. 5, 2007