While writing two recent stories about the Pleasanton school district, I filed eight public records requests. The timeframe between the request and receiving the requested documents ranged anywhere from three weeks to three months.
The delays had nothing to do with reluctance on the part of the school district to provide the documents. On the contrary, the district and its attorneys were very helpful. However, the ability to access information from public agencies and a reasonable expectation of privacy are acknowledged as fundamental rights by most Americans. Sometimes these basic rights come into conflict. The California Public Records Request Act (CPRA) tries to balance the privacy of the individuals involved with the public's right to know. This balancing act makes the process a bit lengthy and cumbersome.
Typically a request is made in writing and names the specific information or documents sought and the timeframe. So, for example, a request could include emails regarding a particular issue received by a person or group during a three-month period.
The agency has 10 days to respond with either the documents or a request for an extension and an estimated date the documents will be available. Reasons for an extension include the need to search for and collect the documents, the need to review documents and redact certain information or the need for consultation.
The response may also include a list of items that will not be provided because they are exempt. A "public record" is loosely defined as anything produced and used by a government agency. However, the list of exemptions is long and includes equally loosely defined documents such as "personnel, medical, and similar files," and "investigations of employee misconduct." It is these loose definitions that create the "gray area" that the requester and the respondent often spar over and can lead to delays in producing the documents.
While the back and forth between the requester and the agency, or more likely the agency's legal advisers, is necessary to protect the privacy of those involved, it does slow down the process.
My most recent learning experience was a 10-month endeavor that included eight public records requests and dozens of hours sifting through - and trying to make sense of - hundreds of pages of redacted documents.
By the way, you don't have to be a journalist or represent a media organization to make a request of a public agency. The First Amendment Coalition has quite a bit of information about CPRA.