The California Public Records Act at section 6253 tells us that “[p]ublic records are open to inspection at all times during the office hours of the state or local agency.” In order to understand laws it’s important to read the definitions. At section 6252 the CPRA tells us that
“Local agency” includes a county; city, whether general law or chartered; city and county; school district; municipal corporation; district; political subdivision; or any board, commission or agency thereof.
So the City of Los Angeles is clearly a local agency by this definition. Arguably its various commissions, boards, or subdivisions are also local agencies by this definition. And that’s the position that CoLA 1 itself takes. That, e.g. City Council is a local agency, but Council Committees are distinct local agencies, as are, e.g. LADWP, LAPD, etc. Why, you might well ask, does this matter at all? Well, it matters due to section 6253(c), which states that:
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.
Right now, if you were to ask City Department X for some records that are held by City Department Y more often than not Dept X will sit on your request for 10 days and then tell you they don’t have any responsive records. On the advice of the City Attorney 2 Dept X will NOT suggest other departments to ask, although from time to time they do make suggestions. Sometimes they even make absolutely wrong suggestions, by the way. LAPD and associated departments are notorious for this. Section 6253(c) allows local agencies to put off their responses for an additional 14 days under specific circumstances, and sometimes departments will do this before doing the other trick, which only adds to the pain.
In any case, somehow you decide to ask Department Y for the records. Well, they can now wait another 10 days before telling you that they don’t have the records. Obviously this could go on indefinitely. Probably the City could create new departments faster than one could work through them 10 days at a time waiting to be told that you asked the wrong office for the goods. In other words, if CoLA’s interpretation of the meaning of a local agency is correct, then the 10 day response deadline from 6253(c) has essentially no meaning. A city with as many potential subdivisions as Los Angeles may never be forced to respond substantively at all. This cannot be what the legislature intended, so CoLA’s theory of local agencies must be wrong.
What CoLA ought to do is have a central office responsible for handling CPRA requests. This office ought to accept all incoming requests, obtain the records from departments, facilitate review on a schedule, and then produce. This is the only possible way for the City to comply with the law. LAUSD uses this model, although it doesn’t work at all there because it’s run by the Office of the General Counsel, whose goal in designing the process is to protect the agency, not the rights of the public. In order to avoid this kind of capture I think it’s necessary to have an elected official directly in charge of the CPRA process. In many cities across the state this is the City Clerk. In Los Angeles this won’t work as things stand now since our clerk isn’t elected, and therefore aligns with the interests of the politicians who appoint to the position.
Thus a charter amendment making the Clerk elected would be necessary to make this proposal work as well as possible. If we’re going to all that trouble it might be worth packaging a number of such changes into a local sunshine amendment. San Francisco and a few other cities have such a law. In Frisco they created an actual sunshine task force to oversee compliance. Or conceivably this work could devolve on some other office. The Controller is a good candidate since their job duties, at least ideally, put them into an oppositional relationship with the rest of the electeds in the city. This might be doable by ordinance rather than charter amendment, which would make it more attainable.
Another possibility plays off an idea proposed by Rob Quan of Unrig LA in a recent LA Times Op-Ed piece. Quan proposes a charter amendment creating an Office of the Public Advocate. New York City has this and apparently it’s a good thing. If this gains traction then CPRA facilitation seems like a natural duty to add to the role.
Los Angeles has basically infinitely many ways of violating the CPRA. They violate it so regularly and so constantly and have so goddamned much money that even the millions they spend settling CPRA cases means nothing to them. Fixing this loophole will still leave so very many others, and it’s the kind of technical fix that takes real organizing ability to create a movement around. Writing about problems doesn’t fix them, of course, but it helps, so I plan to do it from time to time. Stay tuned!