Practical Guide to Using the California Public Records Act in Los Angeles

  1. Introduction
  2. There are Two Ways to Access Records
  3. Formulating a request
  4. Inspecting as Opposed to Obtaining Copies of Records
  5. Paying for Copies
  6. Ideal Timeline of a Request
  7. Specific Agencies
  8. An Actual Request and Response

Introduction:
The California Public Records Act is an immensely useful albeit fairly complicated piece of legislation. Briefly, it guarantees access to most public records produced by government agencies in the state of California. As they say, of course, the devil is in the details. I’ve had a lot of practical experience with the CPRA in Los Angeles, and thought it would be useful to explain and share what I’ve learned. If you have questions that aren’t addressed here, please feel free to ask them in the comment section or to email them to me at mike ((at)) michaelkohlhaas ((dot)) org and I’ll be happy to answer if I can.

Subsequently, I’ll explain how the CPRA works for many specific agencies and offices in Los Angeles. First, though, it’s worth at least skimming the law itself and reading over a useful but more general introduction to how the law works. Don’t be put off by the many weirdly specific clauses in the actual law. In any particular requesting situation most of them are not relevant. The few which are often important I’ll discuss below.

  1. General Introduction to the CPRA
  2. The text of the Public Records Act

You must note that I’m not a lawyer, and that nothing in this guide is meant to constitute legal advice. There are at least a few lawyers in the Los Angeles area who specialize in public records litigation, and you can find them via Google at least as well as I can. Please talk to a professional before making decisions which may carry legal consequences. That being said, there are absolutely no legal consequences for requesting public records. You can ask for as many as you want and the worst that can happen is they’ll just say no. You have a right to ask for records and a right to see records and a right to get copies of records.

Also note that I’m omitting references to specific sections of the law here in many instances. Everything I say, to the best of my knowledge, is backed by the actual language of the law but I found that it made the prose too unwieldy to include all possible supporting citations and quotations. For detailed citations I recommend the general introduction linked to immediately above.
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Two Ways to Access Records:
There are two different ways to access public records. First, according to the law, anyone can go to the office of an agency subject to the law during normal business hours and demand to look at records for any reason. Some agencies are cooperative, with this requirement but many resent it. It’s important to note that, while agencies are allowed to adopt local policies about how they deal with public records requests, those policies are not allowed to contradict the law itself. In particular, and this is crucial, the policies must not limit your access to records during normal office hours. It’s an important clause, because this is something that various agencies, especially business improvement districts, try to pull often. (6253.4.(a) Every agency may adopt regulations stating the procedures to be followed when making its records available in accordance with this section. (b) Guidelines and regulations adopted pursuant to this section shall be consistent with all other sections of this chapter and shall reflect the intention of the Legislature to make the records accessible to the public. The guidelines and regulations adopted pursuant to this section shall not operate to limit the hours public records are open for inspection…)

The second way is to send a request by email or mail to the office that you suspect holds the records you want to see. Note that the law does not require you to make requests in writing, but I can’t imagine circumstances in which it’s not better to do so, so I’m not covering purely oral requests. It’s worth noting that many agencies will provide forms that they insist on your using. Sometimes these forms are purely obstructionist, e.g. providing one small line for you to fill in your request, or requiring you to check boxes that purport to bind you to purchasing copies rather than inspecting them for free. Other times they seem fairly reasonable. I can’t see how they can possibly be required under the law, but I tend to use them if they are compatible with getting access to the materials. Otherwise no.

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Formulating a Request:
The CPRA requires state (and therefore municipal) agencies to open their records to you for inspection upon your request to see the records. Requests don’t have to identify documents precisely. Instead they should describe documents somehow. It then becomes the responsibility of the agency to identify documents which are “responsive” to your request (“responsive” is a term of art here). So, e.g., suppose you want to know what a particular city council member did and said in relation to a specific law, say Council File 15-abcd. You might write to their office (more details on how to find who to write to in this situation below) and say something like “I would like to inspect all records relating to Council File 15-abcd including emails to and from the council member’s office, minutes of meetings, letters, communications from the public, council motions, and so on.” The point is that you don’t have to know specifically what to ask for. Instead, the agency you’re asking has to work with you to figure out which documents match your description. It’s not OK for agencies to deny your request just because you didn’t ask for the documents in a precisely correct manner. If they can discern what you’re looking for they have to help you get to it.

You can ask for all kinds of things, like photographs, video, emails, and so on. The law says that if the records are stored electronically you’re entitled to electronic copies in the format in which they’re typically stored. Requesting such items this way is good for a number of reasons. Note that some agencies, most notably the entire city of Los Angeles, completely ignore this part of the law and will only supply most records on paper, even emails. Since the only remedy the law provides is a lawsuit, I haven’t thought it was worth the tsuris to challenge them. Perhaps someone will some day. Anyway, that’s the kind of thing you put in a request.

It’s also worth remembering that the CPRA only requires agencies to produce records that they own or use in carrying out their work. It does not require them to create documents at your request. In particular this means that if you ask them questions, they don’t have to answer them. Instead, you ask for documents which will allow you to find the answer to your questions. You can actually formulate requests that way, e.g. “I’m looking for an answer to question X. I would like to inspect sufficiently many documents to allow me to determine the answer.” It’s reasonable to be open about your intentions here. Many agencies will see the benefit of adhering to the spirit of the law rather than the letter here and just tell you the answer. Others will not.

It’s also important to remember that the CPRA is not a records retention law. It doesn’t require agencies to retain any documents, although they may be subject to separate local retention laws. Thus it’s possible that records you request will have been destroyed, purged, or lost. In general there’s nothing to be done about this, although see this interesting document by the former City Attorney of Lathrop, California, who argues that the destruction of records after they’ve been requested is a violation of California Penal Code section 135, which states that:

135. A person who, knowing that any book, paper, record, instrument in writing, digital image, video recording owned by another, or other matter or thing, is about to be produced in evidence upon a trial, inquiry, or investigation, authorized by law, willfully destroys, erases, or conceals the same, with the intent to prevent it or its content from being produced, is guilty of a misdemeanor.

I haven’t tested this theory yet, but, who knows? It may happen sooner than we think.

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Inspecting as Opposed to Obtaining Copies of Records:

Note that the CPRA requires public agencies to let you inspect records for free. It allows government agencies to charge you for copying, though. If there’s a possibility that there may be a large amount of paper records responsive to your request, it’s better to have asked initially to inspect the records rather than to have copies. I had (once or twice) staff people charge me for big stacks of paper most of which I didn’t want before I learned this trick. You can always arrange for copies later once you inspect and narrow down what you need. It turns out that, according to the City Attorney (I’m told), bringing in your own scanner is allowable in an inspection of documents. I have done this with at least one LAPD request and am, at the time of this writing, scheduled to do it again with CD13. This saves an immense amount of money and I highly recommend it.

Some agencies can be remarkably obstructionist about this. For instance I’ve had the Bureau of Street Services first act as if I had to pay for records up front in order to be able to see them at all and then after I disputed that, tell me that I could only look at them between 7 am and 8 am on Wednesdays and Thursdays. As I mentioned above this is in direct contradiction to the law. Other agencies have changed their office hours from, e.g. 8:30-5 Monday through Friday to “by appointment only,” all the while continuing to work Monday through Friday 8:30 to 5. Another favorite strategy, also illegal, is to require appointments made days or even weeks in advance. I have no advice to give about this yet.
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Paying for Copies:

Essentially the CPRA allows agencies to charge you for the actual cost of providing copies of records. It also allows certain agencies to charge an amount that’s defined by a statute rather than the actual cost. For instance, the city of Los Angeles is allowed to charge 10¢ per page for paper copies because there’s an explicit municipal law that says they can. Most agencies, though, in the absence of such a law, are only allowed to charge you what the copies actually cost.

Also, if any “programming” is necessary to extract responsive records from a database (the word is in the law; I think it refers mostly to crafting a search) they’re allowed to charge you for that. For instance, I’ve been charged around $30 by the LA City Attorney for someone’s time to produce a spreadsheet with information that was pulled from a database using criteria that I requested. Some people ask agencies to waive the fees, and I suppose that maybe sometimes they will, but I don’t do this. Also, the cost of providing most electronic records, like PDFs and electronic versions of emails, is essentially nothing unless there’s a large quantity. In this case you might have to pay the cost of a blank DVD or flash drive.

It’s a little irritating to have to pay for copies, but I have to, if I’m going to be honest, admit that it’s a necessary part of the law. The CPRA already allows members of the public to encumber the time of public employees by requesting copies of stuff from them. If the costs of this weren’t passed along to the requester this right would certainly be abused. In any case, most records end up being free since they’re in various electronic formats. For those that aren’t my colleagues and I spend about $30 per month on average for the stuff that you see on this website (and a bunch of stuff we end up with that’s either not that interesting or else I haven’t had time to process and post it) and I think it’s money well spent. I hope you agree!

Note that agencies are only allowed to charge for the direct cost of copying. This means that you’re not responsible for staff time spent gathering the records, reviewing the records to decide if they’re disclosable, or redacting the records. I haven’t had agencies try to charge me for this, but it’s important to remember, especially so you don’t feel that you have to limit your requests. Agencies will make up prices, e.g. the Downtown Center Business Improvement District used to charge me $0.015 per page, and send along cost reports generated by their copier to justify the charge. This strikes me as totally reasonable. Lately they’ve decided to completely ignore the law and charge $0.15 per page, a 900% increase. They’ve ignored all my requests to justify this. As far as I can see, the only possible explanation is that they’re charging for staff time to run the copier, and their staff person at 20 pages per minute is being paid

20 \frac{page}{min} \times 60 \frac{min}{hour} \times 0.135\frac{\$}{page} = 162 \frac{\$}{hour}

That’s more than many lawyers!

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Ideal Timeline of a Request:

  1. You submit a request to an agency. This starts a clock ticking.
  2. Within ten days the agency should respond to your request. The law doesn’t say anything about business days, but everyone, and rightly so, seems to interpret the law to mean business days. There are essentially three possible responses.
    • They may tell you that they have no records that are responsive to your request. That’s the end of that.
    • They may tell you that they have some records that are responsive to your request. Some of these records may be exempt from disclosure due to specific criteria set forth in the CPRA. I’m not going to go into detail about what these are as the agency should cite specific sections of the law to you to justify exempting records from disclosure. Check these claimed exemptions carefully until you get the hang of them. Any records that aren’t specifically exempted must be disclosed. According to the law their response at this stage should include an estimated date for having the records ready for your inspection. This date is set by the agency and as far as I can tell is completely flexible. There is a deadline in the law for an agency to respond to tell you when they’ll give up the records, but no deadline for when they actually have to give them to you. This may be an unintended loophole in the law, but it’s easy enough to imagine undesirable effects from closing it, so I can’t really decide if it’s a feature or a bug. Also, some responsive records might contain some exempt information. The law doesn’t allow this fact to be an excuse for exempting the whole record from disclosure. The agency is supposed to redact the parts that are exempt from disclosure and hand over the rest. If you’ve looked through the records I’ve published here, you may have noticed this here and there.
    • They may tell you that your request is too complicated for them to give you a proper response within ten days, so they’re going to take another two weeks to respond as described above. As far as I can see this is completely within the agency’s discretion.
  3. So by 24 days after your request, you should have a response telling you if there are any responsive records and an estimated date by which they’ll be ready for your inspection. If you do get a response but it’s lacking any of the required elements (especially the estimated date of production) it’s certainly OK to ask the agency to give you the missing information. They may or may not be responsive to such requests.
  4. So now you have an estimated date. At this point there’s nothing to do but wait. If I don’t have the materials by around two weeks after the estimated date I start sending inquiries to the agency every couple weeks or so asking how the request is going. Sometimes they’ve just forgotten and an inquiry will get a response. Other times I’m ignored completely. There’s not much to do here, with some exceptions to be noted below, other than going to court.
  5. One hopes that at some point the agency gets in touch with you and tells you that your records are ready. At this point you make an appointment to go look at them or arrange some kind of deal for obtaining copies.
  6. Note, of course, that this process, from request to actual production of records, will take two weeks in the best case and can take up to a few months (or more, depending on how cooperative your agency is) depending on various factors.

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City Council Members:

First you have to find someone to request documents from. I have had good luck googling for council members’ staff directories (e.g. here’s Gil Cedillo’s) and then emailing field deputies with my requests. It’s a matter of trial and error, and once you find someone in a given district who’s responsive you can keep submitting your requests to them. I haven’t had such good luck using the council district’s general email addresses, but that might just be due to chance.

Council members can be very strict about the inspecting/copying distinction, so be aware of this if you don’t want a bill for hundreds of pages of political spam. I’ve gone both to field offices in the various districts and to City Hall to inspect documents. It takes a lot of time, but it’s a nice way to see various parts of the city as well. There’s no way around it.

Council members, like all City of Los Angeles offices, will refuse to give you email in electronic form even though the law requires it. I’ve been repeatedly handed an obviously deficient excuse about how their email system won’t export mail spools or forward messages as attachments. I don’t see how the city can rely on this argument given that the law requires agencies to supply electronically stored records in the form in which they’re stored. I may not know that much about email, but I do know that email systems don’t store messages on paper. Also, the fact that the city chose to configure its system so that it won’t export emails can’t possibly excuse them from the explicit statutory requirement to provide electronic records in an electronic format. If it did, they’d only have to, for instance, configure their record-keeping systems to produce output exclusively in audible Morse code stored on 8-track tapes to effectively nullify the whole law.

Obviously the gold standard for receiving emails is MBOX or PST, but I’ve never gotten anything but paper out of a council member’s office. You may have different results, but I think this is an argument that wealthier people than I will have to argue about if it’s going to be argued.

Note also that council members do not typically have access to the records of their predecessors. I’m just beginning to learn about how to find historical council records, and will write an update here once some of my pending requests come to fruition. If you have an urgent need for records from a council member who’s no longer in office email me and I’ll tell you what I currently know, which isn’t much but it’s more than nothing.

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The Mayor:

I’ve made a number of requests of the Mayor. His current CPRA coordinator is Omar Gonzales, whose email is omar.gonzales@lacity.org. I haven’t had any experience with Mr. Gonzales yet, but he can’t possibly be more obstructionist and uncooperative than his predecessor, about whom I’ll say nothing here because I have nothing good to say and she’s gone now.

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The City Attorney:

The go-to guy for CPRA requests at the City Attorney’s office is Mike Dundas (mike.dundas@lacity.org). He knows the law inside and out and is generally willing, for the most part, to meet its requirements. That is, except for the production of emails solely on paper, which he defends. This is a city agency so expect to pay 10¢ per page for paper and for programming time for database queries. I have actually gotten some electronically stored documents for free from the City Attorney. He has some wacky ideas about how long one is to be allowed to inspect documents (the law says during regular office hours without other limitation; Dundas says when it’s convenient for his staff) but he hasn’t pressed them with me so far, so maybe he’s just bluffing.

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The City Clerk:

I’ve had no major problems requesting documents from the office of the City Clerk. Again, it’s a city agency, so be aware of the potential for charges. They can be quite slow, but they are also quite responsive. Send requests about business improvement districts to miranda.paster@lacity.org and general requests to holly.wolcott@lacity.org.

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The LAPD:

All requests must be sent to discovery@lapd.lacity.org, but don’t expect to actually get anything out of them. The LAPD is the least cooperative of any government agency I’ve ever requested records from. I’ve been asking since October 2014 and I’ve yet to receive a single piece of information. They answer my initial requests most of the time, but after that nothing. When I inquire about the status of my pending requests they usually ignore me, although once in a while they respond and tell me they’ll be done at some point, but actually they never are.

They have in the past ignored my requests for weeks, told me after inquiries that they’d never received them, and then proceeded to ignore them some more. I did once get a definitive response to a request from the LAPD but all it said was that they couldn’t do the kind of search I’d requested so I’d have to reformulate it. This was in February of 2015 and they still haven’t produced anything. Again, there’s not much to do other than take them to court, and, at least for now, I’m not willing to do that.

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Recreation and Parks:

Requests should be sent to rap.commissioners@lacity.org. I have made a few requests of RAP and they’ve responded in a relatively timely manner. So far they have emailed me PDFs of the material I requested, which saves a lot of time.

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Business Improvement Districts (BIDs):

BIDs in California are subject to the CPRA for a number of reasons, all of which are off-topic for this guide. Each BID is different, making it hard to generalize. Here’s what I wrote about this in the first edition of this guide: I’ve generally had comparatively excellent cooperation from BIDs. In the one case where a BID refused at first to even answer my requests, I was able to exert some pressure on them by complaining to the City Clerk’s office, which oversees Los Angeles BIDs. There’s a clause in the contract BIDs sign with the city that requires them to acknowledge that they’re subject to the CPRA, so my argument to the Clerk’s office was that they had a duty to make sure that the terms of the BID’s contract with the city were enforced. This was so successful that I eventually ended up with an email from that BID’s executive director to someone else saying that he thought they could safely ignore my request. Guess not! Anyway, the big challenge with BIDs is finding the right person to email requests to. As with every aspect of the search for public records, persistence will pay off. I usually find the executive director’s email address via Google and start there, checking in every couple weeks and cc-ing more and more people at the BID if my requests go unanswered.

Since that time the BIDs of Los Angeles have become almost uniformly completely, illegally obstructionist (with the shining exception of Rena Leddy and the Fashion District BID).1 They flout the law at every turn and, unfortunately, it looks very much like lawsuits are the only solution at this point. You’ll hear more as I know it. Your mileage, of course, may vary, because they all really hate me because of this blog. Perhaps if you’re unknown, or even friendly, they’ll follow the law in your case. Drop me an email if you’d like to discuss it out of public view.

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  • Downtown Center BID: Contact person Suzanne Holley. She has no sense of humor and is kind of a liar with respect to when she’s going to hand over records. She’s almost certainly fronting for Carol Schatz on this. Also, she will tell you that you don’t have the right to inspect records during office hours but by appointment only. I haven’t tested her resolve on this in person yet. The DCBID recently published a CPRA form, but it’s useless and I ignore it. They will not allow a scanner, but cell phones, photographs, and note-taking are OK. They habitually ignore CPRA’s requirement to provide records promptly. Also, in the past they’ve redacted records to the point where they were unreadable and refused to explain why. Finally, they’ve recently instituted an unsupportable $0.15 per page charge. All of this is in reaction to my requests, and most of it is certainly illegal. More news soon.
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  • Hollywood Property Owners Alliance (Hollywood Entertainment District, Sunset & Vine BID): Contact person Kerry Morrison. This BID ignores the requirement to supply records promptly. They’ve taken as long as five months to even respond to some of my requests. They ignore the requirement to allow inspection of records during office hours. They have a form that they want you to use, which you can find here. I’ve compromised with its inutility by refusing to check the boxes, which would commit me to accepting their attenuation of legal rights guaranteed under CPRA, and by pasting my requests into the emails by which I submit the form to retain searchability. They seem to have accepted this, but it’s not possible to tell for sure since they adopted the policy in May 2015 and as of this writing (July 25, 2015) they have yet to respond to a single request I’ve made since then. As always, they adopted these policies in response to my requests, so your mileage may vary.
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An Actual Request and Response:

This request was sent to the ever-helpful Mike Dundas.

Sent on March 18, 2015:
I’d like, at your convenience, to inspect all disclosable emails sent or received by the Hollywood neighborhood prosecutor (whoever held that title during the time span) to/from anyone at the domains hollywoodbid.org, andrewsinternational.com, universalpro.com, or mediadistrict.org from January 1, 2014 through March 18, 2015.

Response received on April 2, 2015:
Please be advised that this office has made its determination on your request as required by Government Code section 6253(c). To the extent that this office has non-exempt records responsive to these requests, those records will be produced at the conclusion of our search. A small number of the records in our possession are exempt from production under California Government Code section 6254(c) and 6254(f). These records directly relate to specific criminal complaints and criminal investigations. Most of the records are of a more general nature and will be subject to inspection and/or copying. At this time, we estimate that we will know the exact number of non-exempt pages by April 15, 2015. As you know, the Los Angeles Municipal Code authorizes this office to charge 10 cents per copy of any requested public document. Please feel free to contact me with any questions in the interim.

And I did actually get the material!

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Anyway, that’s how it works. Happy hunting, and let me know via email or through the comments below if you have any questions for me.

  1. I hope I don’t get her in trouble with her BID colleagues for saying so!

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A collaborative denunciation of Business Improvement Districts in Los Angeles