California Public Records Act
Did you know that the California’s Public Records Act was passed by the Legislature and signed by Governor Ronald Reagan in 1968. This legislation gives the public the legal right to examine governmental documents with a few specified exceptions. In 2004, voters strengthened the Act by passing a constitutional amendment. Sounds like the law has real teeth.
Wait! Even though there is a law on the books, making state and local officials comply is a totally different matter. Some agencies and local governments comply with PRA requests. Others use different techniques to avoid compliance. Here are some ways avoidance happens.
1) String out responses
2) Demand more specificity
3) Try to charge exorbitant fees for copying documents
4) Stonewall, thereby forcing those seeking information to file lawsuits
Consumer Watchdog has been battling Insurance Commissioner Ricardo Lara from when he first took office. In 2020, Consumer Watchdog sued Lara’s office on a particular issue. The important issue here is that the department responded by saying that it was unreasonable to ask for records of a broad nature and insisted that it had released all the records it could identify as pertinent. Recently, the case was heard by Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Mitchell Beckloff. He issued a ruling almost fully favoring Lara. Jerry Flanagan, litigation director for Consumer Watchdog responded to the decision. “Access to information concerning the conduct of the people’s business is a fundamental right of every person in this state and is a critical weapon in the fight against government corruption.” There is question about how transparent Consumer Watchdog is but the point of the case is that the Public Records Act can be unwieldy when an agency chooses to fight instead of complying with the Public Records Act.
Governmental entities have an unlimited ability to fight legal battles because they have armies of tax-payer financed attorneys. People seeking information must hire their own legal talent.
Republican Assemblyman Vince Fong has introduced legislation that would create an ombudsman within the state auditor’s office to settle such disagreements without involving judges.