Once in a while I use this space to review the basic tenets of the state Public Records Act for citizens and also for government officials to whom it applies and who are all too often painfully ignorant of, or just ignore, their requirements under it.
Given some recent terrible responses I have received to PRA requests, it's time for another review.
A good place to concentrate is the amount of time the government has to answer a request and what is required in an answer.
When one makes a request for records under the law, the government has 10 calendar days to reply in a specific, formal, if you will, way.
What the law requires is this: "Each agency, upon a request for a copy of records, shall, within 10 days from receipt of the request, determine whether the request, in whole or in part, seeks copies of disclosable public records in the possession of the agency and shall promptly notify the person making the request of the determination and the reasons therefor."
That means that within those 10 days, the government has to be actively working on the request to make a determination of what will be released and when. It's during that time when all the front-end work must be done, such as censoring records or deciding the extremely narrow exemptions that can be applied in rejecting the request whole or in part.
Only under what the law calls "unusual circumstances" can an extension of the 10-day period be enacted. That extension can be as long as an additional 14 days to make the determination.
So what happens, or at least is supposed to happen, at the end of 10 days is that a government official is required to tell you what you are getting and when you are getting it. The law requires that records be released "promptly," although it is not specific in defining what "promptly" entails.
If you don't get a reply in 10 days, a bureaucrat is breaking the law.
If you don't get a firm determination in 10 days and no need for an extension is cited, a bureaucrat is breaking the law.
And it isn't enough to get an email within 10 days saying, "We're working on it" or some other vague gobbledygook. If within 10 days, you don't have firm determination of what will be provided and when, then a bureaucrat is breaking the law.
If you are sensing a theme here, that is because there is one.
All of the responsibility to deal with a request and to follow the law is on the government, which is very clearly subordinate to the requester of records. In other words, the public is in charge.
I like how Los Angeles County Judge James C. Chalfant defined the government's role in complying with the law in a decision he authored last year. The judge said government's role is largely and simply ministerial and that the public has a strong interest in the custodians of records doing their jobs without delay or complaint.
Chalfant also hit another high point when he said that the reason someone is making a request and what they intend to do with the records is meaningless. Doing a research project and need government data? Ask for it. Looking for bird cage liner? Doesn't matter.
The bottom line, as aforesaid, is that the public is in charge. If you don't get a formal response to a request in 10 days, tell them you want a determination and don't back down. Remember, access delayed is really access denied.
Thomas Peele is a digital investigative reporter for the Bay Area News Group and teaches a class on public records at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. Contact him at email@example.com. Follow him at Twitter.com/thomas_peele.