Thanks for visiting UCAN.org! For over 25 years, UCAN has been protecting, educating, and advocating for consumers through a small staff of dedicated consumer advocates. Our services are available because of grassroots donations from people like you.
A Public Records Act How-To
As citizens of this country, this county, and this city, we were given a right in 1968 to inspect public records by the California Public Records Act (PRA).
Unfortunately, the process wasn’t exactly made Average Joe/Joanne-friendly. There are guides and instructions to try to simplify the process, but most are created by the government agency that you are trying to request from. So here’s the breakdown in non-government speak on how you can make your public records requests:
1. Figure out which agency has the information.
If a STATE agency has control of the document, you can request it using the PRA. If you want to get copies of federal agency, legislative, or court documents, you have to go through the Federal Freedom of Information Act or the Public Rights of Access to Courts.
Identifying the agency may be the hardest part, but it’s not too bad. Some organizations you can request from include the Department of Water Resources, Public Utilities Commission, State Water Resources Control Board, all regional water quality control boards, as well as the DMV, Department of Justice, and Secretary of State.
There is a very clear list of SOME of the agencies on pages 21 and 22 of the California Public Records Act
2. Put the request in writing (snail mail or email work).
The more specific you can be, the better. Dates, subject, title, or author would be wonderful but the act allows for some breathing room in case you aren’t familiar with the department or the record you are looking for. Any department that doesn’t list an index of its records is required to assist you in identifying the record when it is unclear which one you’re looking for.
You should definitely include:
a) That you are requesting the information under the PRA.
b) A description of the record.
c) Whether you are using it for “personal use,” “commercial use,” or “scholarly study.” They will use the information to determine copying fees, which can also vary depending on agency and amount of work involved in finding the record.
d) Your contact information so they can respond.
3. Mail it off and Wait.
If you know which department you are requesting information from, check their website for an address, but keep in mind not every agency will provide information on where to send it. All of the examples given above and on pages 21 and 22 of the act are required to tell you where to send it.
Some agencies will try to hide this information like the Easter Bunny hides eggs, but even if they don’t have the information posted they have to give you the record you request if they have it, are a state agency, there are no exemptions, and you follow the above guidelines.
I recently went on the SD Water Department webpage and couldn’t find anything. Next, I tried the SPUD (San Diego Public Utility Department) webpage to find out where to send a request for records in the water department. Regretfully I gave up after burying myself in links. I wrote to the webmaster of SPUD asking them to point me in the right direction to get public information from the water department.
The response? “You can send a request for information to me and I will pass it on to the right person. There is no formal form or guide to fill out.”
That was all that was included in the response besides a greeting and a sign off.
The response happened to be from SPUD Public Information Officer Kidman. Not the webmaster, not even anyone from the water department. No mention of the PRA, the guidelines written about it, what information to include, or who I can send it to, let alone follow up with.
Don’t be fooled! Make sure you are getting your written request to the right person so you know who to follow up with and that it gets to the right department. It is one of the requirements that you request from the appropriate department. Don’t give them an opportunity to deny your request or send you on a wild goose chase. For information from SPUD, follow the instructions from the City of San Diego website, which you can find here: http://www.sandiego.gov/city-clerk/contact/requests.shtml.
After you send the request, the agency has 10 days to respond, either accepting or denying your request. In some unusual circumstances they may need another 14 days.
Unusual circumstances are supposed to be when they don’t have the resources or personnel to find your document.
Unfortunately, it seems “unusual circumstances” sometimes happen even when common sense tells us they have the documents right on hand, but don’t want to get around to the request. Don't put up with this! If you feel that SPUD is giving you the run around, contact us and we will help you get the information you are requesting!
So now that you have all the tools you need to request, take advantage, but remember you will need to be patient and assertive in your right to know!