California has a series of open government laws. These provide for open meetings, well-noticed meetings and public access to government documents. They cover virtually every public body in California.
In 2004, Californians even added open government to the State constitution.
The Bagley-Keene Act covers state agency meetings (including the California High Speed Rail Authority).
The California Public Records Act gives the public extensive rights to access government information (similar to the federal Freedom of Information Act).
Here is the law itself.
We have been asked how we get information. It is straightforward in California. You just ask (politely). It does help to keep a record of your request and follow up if you don’t receive it in 2 weeks. Officially the agency first goes through a process of figuring out if what you are asking for is public information and then they are supposed to give it to you promptly. On a practical basis, most agencies will just send it to you as soon as they find it.
CARRD has had a number of kerfuffles with getting the California High Speed Rail Authority to release records.
Things that we have learned:
1) Know the law. It really is not very complicated.
2) “Draft” by itself is not a reason to deny a request.
3) Some agencies appear to take the same tact that some insurance companies do when they deny a claim the first time it is submitted, reasoning that some people will ask again but others will go away. This is not okay behavior.
4) State agencies by law need to have information on their websites about how to get public records. Calpers is the best site we have seen so far. They have a nice form, you can go online and check the status of your request and they publish a list monthly of all request. The Authority didn’t have anything at all, until we pointed it out.
5) Some agencies take the tact of trying to flood you in paper and then charge you for a million copies. Save a tree, ask for a digital copy or put a dollar limit on the copying. If you don’t have any money and the items you want are only in paper format, you can always walk into the office and look at them for free. The Authority has been very helpful in this area – everything is given digitally and they will even send it on a disk if it is too big.
6) There is no one out there making sure an agency follows the law except you. By law, the enforcement of public records law is through the requester (that is you) suing. Even if it doesn’t get to court, if the agency didn’t give you something they should have, they pay your legal bills.
In our opinion, this system is flawed. Even if you are 100% in the right, but you don’t have the money to pay the lawyers upfront, you may not be able to get someone to take the case because in the best of cases they just get their normal fee and there are filing fees to even file the case, not to mention that wealthy and empowered usually correlates to knowing lots of lawyers who will do you a favor. This means that justice is effectively reserved for the wealthy and the empowered.
If you need assistance, we suggest contacting one of them. If you don’t need assistance, consider donating money. This is a good cause!