California public records and your right to access

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The California Public Records Act (CPRA) permits the public to access, view, inspect and copy government documents and reports unless they are explicitly exempt.

It is the right of every person to have equal access to records and documents relating to the activities of the public’s business as transparency permits the public to monitor governmental activity and fair dealing.

These rights have been legislatively codified into law to establish and preserve openness in government. Files, documents and reports falling under the act are to be made readily accessible to members of the public, regardless of the requestor’s intended usage.

What is a public record?
According to California Government Code § 6252(e), “public records include any writing 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.”

Types of public records accessible under the CPRA include real property and building records, tax liens, judgments, criminal records, civil court files, school district records, photographs, emails and recordings. Certain records are exempt from production and include personnel records, notes, intra-agency memos, health records, student records, records prepared in connection with pending litigation, law enforcement investigation files and attorney/client privileged materials.

Public records are to be made available for inspection during the office hours of the state or local agency and every person has a right to inspect any public record, except as provided in the CPRA. (government code § 6253). In addition to maintaining public records for public inspection during office hours, a public agency may comply by uploading some records on its website and direct a member of the public to the website for access.

The CPRA provides that an agency must respond within ten days of the request and determine what records in their possession are disclosable and then promptly notify the requestor without unnecessary delay. Many records are readily available at the agency’s place of business.

In compliance with the CPRA, the City of Winters’ website states, “The City of Winters strives to conduct the public’s business in a manner that is accessible and transparent to all its citizens. We believe that our participatory democracy is best served by ensuring that the public has an understanding of its government’s decision-making process and how best to participate. In addition, the public should have easy-access to public information, including meeting agendas and minutes, financial and budget information, and documents and reports.”

One local example of how a public records request brought a community issue to light occurred in 2019 after the Express filed a public records request and obtained emails exchanged between Winters city officials and representatives of developer Belleview North. The emails revealed ongoing discussions to annex and develop nearly 800 acres north of the city limits in unincorporated Yolo County.

Residents then questioned whether the city was courting big-time developers and a community outcry ensued that led to the grass roots formation of Keep Winters Winters (KWW). KWW organized public support and brought forth their initiative, Measure A, to establish an urban growth boundary and prevent annexation without first bringing it to a vote of the citizens. Measure A passed easily by a three-to-one margin on the November 2020 ballot.

Record requests can be made in writing or orally, although a written request may facilitate compliance and allow the agency to track the request. Some agencies, like the City of Winters, provide a public records request form on their website.

Failure of an agency to comply with the provisions of the CPRA may result in a court awarding attorney’s fees and costs to the plaintiff.

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