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By Gina Channell Wilcox

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About this blog: I am President of Embarcadero Media's East Bay Division and the publisher of the Pleasanton Weekly, Dublin TriValley Views, San Ramon Express and Danville Express. As a 25-plus-year veteran of the media industry, I have experience...  (More)

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CPRA: Balancing privacy, public's right to know

Uploaded: Aug 20, 2014
I have had an opportunity recently to file a lot of requests through the California Public Records Request Act, otherwise known as CPRA.

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.

What is it worth to you?


Posted by Michael Austin, a resident of Pleasanton Meadows,
on Aug 20, 2014 at 3:10 pm

Michael Austin is a registered user.


Did you receive the documents be email, or hard copy?
Were you asked to pay a fee for the documents you requested?

Posted by Gina Channell-Allen, a DanvilleSanRamon.com blogger,
on Aug 20, 2014 at 3:27 pm

Gina Channell-Allen is a registered user.

It was a little bit of everything. The first round came via email. The second request produced the most documents, and those documents were posted on the district's website. I found that a bit odd, but other district's in the area have done that too. The URLs were subsequently removed from the site, but when I said I needed the docs, the district provided me with hardcopies - and didn't ask for a fee - within days of my request.

The next few responsive documents were emailed and the settlement documents, which I just received earlier this month, were mailed.

The district has been very accommodating and has never asked us to pay a fee.

Posted by been there, a resident of Another Pleasanton neighborhood,
on Aug 20, 2014 at 8:36 pm

The district never asked you to pay a fee because you are the media but if you are a member of the public, you have a good chance in being charged. I have done several public record requests at our school district and have not found them to be accommodating. It always took more than the 10 days; usually taking a month or more. I have asked for specific items and they end up giving me piles of paperwork that had little to do with my request, most of which was on the website, and charged me. I asked to view the records at the district, which they are required to do for free, and they stopped responding to my public record requests all together. Their goal is to frustrate you and hope you eventually give up.

My experience with public records requests has been horrible with the current administration (superintendent and finance person). With the previous administrations, they were always accommodating, helpful and never charged. The current administration sees the public information requests and those who request them as a nuisance. In the past the district supported the public right to know. I have done public record requests with the previous administrations and also with the city and never had a problem.

My experience, and experience of others I have communicated with who have done public records requests, is this administration is very secretive and does not want the public to know what is going on. You would think they would learn that treating the public this way only makes the public trust them even less.

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