When making requests for information from government agencies, being both an environmentalist and an advocate for government transparency can be doubly painful. It is quite common for public agencies to stall or attempt to deny public records requests, but some methods are just too bizarre to believe. Two separate California school districts – Duarte Unified School District and Hacienda La Puente Unified School District – decided that instead of providing the requested records in electronic format as requested, they would print out their entire payroll records and mail them, along with an invoice for the cost of production.
California’s Public Records Act makes perfectly clear in § 6253.9(a) that public records are to be provided in their original, electronic format when requested, and I stressed this in the records requests to the school districts. Yet, not only did both agencies feel comfortable defying this part of state law, they thought nothing of wasting the resources associated with mailing a massive print out without even pausing to confirm that I would pay the associated costs of production!
There are two possible ways to view this. The first is that this is an elaborate, wasteful method of denying my public records act request in which I stress the importance of electronic format so that, “these records can be uploaded into an online database for easy viewing” by attempting to technically satisfy the request while obstructing its purpose.
The second is that both agencies failed to read the request properly and thought nothing of employing the most environmentally harmful, inefficient, and costly way possible to satisfy this request, all without ever stopping to confirm this assumption with the requestor.
Quite frankly, I’m not sure which one is worse!
Stalling tactics are annoying and wasteful, but I’ve faced worse than this and most agencies — eventually — comply with the law. Just not before wasting their time (and mine) with games like this.
In the meantime, I encourage you to visit www.transparentcalifornia.com to see the 3 million-plus records we have obtained so far, many from agencies that are dedicated to helping, not stalling, public records requests.
And for those inquiring about the inclusion of school districts, do not let these two examples discourage you; we will be adding school districts to the site later this year.
Robert Fellner is a researcher at the Nevada Policy Research Institute (NPRI), currently working on the largest privately funded state and local government payroll and pensions records project in California history, TransparentCalifornia.com, a joint venture of the California Public Policy Center and NPRI.