California Forum

California’s Public Records Act intended to ensure openness, not provide excuses

Joyce Terhaar
Joyce Terhaar

Is it legitimate for a public institution to stall public record act requests in the heat of ongoing media coverage of a controversy?

I suspect plenty of crisis management consultants would say absolutely yes. Yet in California we have a Public Records Act intended to protect the public interest and ensure transparency. The spirit of that act means the answer should be a resounding “No.”

Bee reporters Diana Lambert and Sam Stanton have, between them, filed seven Public Records Act requests as part of ongoing Bee coverage revealing that UC Davis Chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi accepted lucrative and controversial outside board positions with the troubled DeVry Education Group and a textbook publisher.

Since that first story we’ve covered calls for Katehi’s resignation, a legislative hearing and an ongoing student protest. We’ve also heard from Katehi supporters reminding the community that under her leadership, the university’s academic stature has grown.

Our coverage unleashed a torrent of tips from employees and others connected to UC Davis. Some tips were about other issues that, if true, might concern you. While reporting always includes interviews and other sourcing, the certainty of documents is a valuable vetting tool, so we filed PRA requests with UC Davis and the University of California to determine what is true and what is rumor.

The seven requests are for information including some salaries and staffing, some expenses incurred by public officials and some materials related to UC Davis’ response to a November 2011 incident in which officers pepper-sprayed students protesting on campus. The Bee also asked for certain contracts, emails and other correspondence. The first request was filed March 2. The most recent was filed March 25. Lambert and Stanton reported Friday that we still await most of the documents.

The people of this state do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies which serve them.

California Public Records Act

California’s law – available to citizens as well as the media – is intended to protect our right to know, and to spur speedy replies to PRA requests. The act states: “The people of this state do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies which serve them. The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know.”

It also states that nothing in the act “shall be construed to permit an agency to delay or obstruct the inspection or copying of public records.”

To date, I can tell you that the UC Office of the President responds more quickly than UC Davis, and that the California State University system – which we asked for information for comparison – is the fastest of the three.

Lambert received some documents reasonably quickly from the UC Office of the President. The favored approach from UC Davis, though, has been to wait a full 10 days before sending an email acknowledging receipt of the PRA – the maximum allowed – and letting us know then that it will take weeks to supply the documents. Each response has included this boilerplate language, with their emphasis:

“Please note, though, that government Code Section 6253 only requires a public agency to make a determination within 10 days as to whether or not a request is seeking records that are publicly disclosable and, if so, to provide the estimated date that the records will be made available. There is no requirement for a public agency to actually supply the records within 10 days of receiving a request, unless the requested records are readily available. Still, UC Davis prides itself on always providing all publicly disclosable records in as timely a manner as possible.”

“If you read the law, it’s clearly not the spirit,” Stanton told me. “They’re supposed to be helpful. The law spells it out.”

7the number of Public Record Act requests Bee reporters filed with UC Davis and UC

First Amendment lawyer Steve Burns said it’s unusual to see that kind of boilerplate in an initial response from a public institution. “It’s almost like they’re preparing us that they’re going to take a long time.”

Here’s one example: In an April 1 response to a request Stanton filed on March 14, UC Davis’ Michele McCuen, legal analyst with Office of the Campus Counsel, estimated the university would need until May 1 to produce certain contracts, payments and correspondence.

“That’s more than a month to locate a contract,” Stanton pointed out. “Is that reasonable?”

Karl Olson, a San Francisco media attorney, told Stanton and Lambert, “They really are hostile to the Public Records Act.

“They seem to have reinvented the motto of UC dating back to 1868, which says, ‘Let there be light, period.’ In this, their attitude is, ‘Let there be darkness.’ 

The nature of news is fast. I’m told the nature of academia is slow. Yet Californians have a reasonable expectation of transparency from their public institutions, codified in the law. Many of our requests could easily be turned around in a couple of days and, in fact, after our reporters pushed them on Thursday they provided some additional documents. Most already should have been supplied. We’ll let you know when that happens.