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Sunshine Laws in the Golden State

The good news:

  • Proposition 59, overwhelmingly approved by California voters in 2004, amended the California Constitution to include:

“The people have the right of access to information concerning the conduct of the people’s business, and, therefore, the meetings of public bodies and the writings of public officials and agencies shall be open to public scrutiny.”

  • Proposition 59 strengthened the already existing California Public Records Act (CPRA) (legislation similar to the Federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA)) passed by the Legislature and signed by the Governor in 1968. Note that it does not cover legislative or judicial agencies.

In other news:

  • WDW-CA contributor Wendy Lack posted an excellent summary last week on recent threats to access to local records in particular, brought on by the budget crisis.

CPRA Basics

Requesting information can be as simple as asking an official orally for the records. There are many diligent public servants who will gladly email a public document to you, direct you to a link to the information online, or let you know the details for receiving a hard copy. The agency is entitled to charge a fee for copying the records or a “statutory fee.”

One reason this is the preferred first step is that the official can help you narrow your request to the records that will provide the information you are really asking for. A common error in CPRA requests is inadvertently making a request for “voluminous” information resulting in a delay in providing the information. An official will contact you preferably orally, but possibly via email or letter, regarding a potentially enormous copying fee, more information than the requestor likely imagined, and to clarify the request.

If you have been denied, or have strong reason to expect a denial, send your request in writing. Cite any prior contacts with the agency regarding the request, including dates and names. It doesn’t necessarily need to go to the highest ranking official or supervisor if you know who on staff has actual custody of the records. CPRA requires that a request submitted in writing be responded to in writing “promptly”: within 10 days unless there are extraordinary circumstances.

If your request is denied, you are entitled to know upon which provision of CPRA the agency is basing its denial and the names and titles of the individuals responsible for it. CPRA favors access, so any denial must be based on a narrow construct of the exception.

Remain watchful!

Sometimes a public records request in California is as easy as a phone call. In extreme cases court action is required to determine what public officials have done in your name and with your resources (read: taxes). The key is to remember that government is ultimately accountable to us and that, to quote Ben Franklin, “it is in the religion of ignorance that tyranny begins.

For more information and resources on CPRA

First Amendment Coalition

Californians Aware


For tips on how to be a transparency watchdog, click here.  For story ideas and information on becoming  a California watchdog, contact me at California@Watchdogwire.com.  If you’d like to start reporting for Watchdog Wire – California, you can sign up here!


Mary Jean Duran

Mary Jean (MJ) Duran is a public policy and communications professional with extensive experience in the private sector, public sector, and the community. She has worked for world class brands including Xerox, PepsiCo, and Disneyland, was a senior level appointee to the US Small Business Administration, and has served on numerous non-profit boards. Ms. Duran earned a Bachelor of Arts degree from Saint Mary’s College of California, spent a semester at the Universidad de Salamanca, Spain, and earned a MBA from Georgetown University.

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Categories: Government Transparency, Quick Tips
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