While many of our CRA members understand that government transparency rules exist, it is likely that plenty of us are unaware of the process that takes place each and every month behind the scenes at City hall to fulfill information requests from interested parties. The following paragraph was taken directly from the City website:
As a public agency, the City of Carmel-by-the-Sea adheres to the California Public Records Act (CPRA) which requires that governmental records shall be disclosed to the public, upon request, unless there is a specific reason not to do so. Permissible exemptions from disclosure include documents that invade an individual’s right to privacy (e.g., privacy in certain personnel or medical records) or hinder the government’s need to perform its assigned functions in a reasonably efficient manner (e.g., maintaining confidentiality of investigative records, official information, records related to pending litigation, and preliminary notes or memoranda). To request public records please email email@example.com.
The CPRA process was modeled on the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and is supposed to provide transparency to individuals and/or organizations. However, even with this Act, there are times when parties can battle for months and even years to gain access to information that is supposed to be readily available. Sometimes expensive lawsuits are necessary to pry information loose.
Luckily here in Carmel, we just need to send an email to the City clerk and, usually, in a reasonable time-frame, one can gain access to the requested information. Not all requests will end in results that will satisfy the requester because sometimes the information just doesn’t exist and sometimes the information may be deemed to meet the requirements for exemption (see above in italics).
Undertaking a cursory investigation into Carmel’s CPRA processes, it was discovered that answering these requests each month takes significant time of personnel that would otherwise be doing other tasks. Therefore, we recommend that you only request information that is absolutely necessary. You may also want to peruse the information that has been requested previously before you make your request. You can see previous requests by going to the City website and locating the City Meetings page. On this page you will see a link for the City Council meetings. If you download the meeting agenda you will see that this includes links to monthly reports submitted to the City Administrator including the City Clerk’s Public Records report.
For example, the August 6th meeting agenda shows there were 36 requests for the City Clerk and 9 requests for the Police Department in the month of June with 135 and 91 YTD respectively. You can also download an Excel spreadsheet with all the requests and who asked for them. The Carmel Pine Cone reporters are regular requesters as are a couple of other people. One name you’ll see every month is “Paterson”. Unfortunately, the City doesn’t have a database where you can see the information others have requested, so back in 2006, L.S. Paterson created a blog called The Carmel-by-the-Sea WATCHDOG! which apparently posts all the results of all the requests plus other information like archives of the Friday Letter. The blog also provides links by data and even subjects. The blog can be found at http://villageinforest.blogspot.com/.
The requests from L.S. Paterson requires the City to re-compile all the CPRA’s each month plus she must spend significant time to plug this information into her blog. It seems that this redundant effort could be eliminated along with duplicate requests if the City maintained its own online public database that immediately posted the results of all CPRA requests fit for public consumption along with an easy way to search for them. A well-defined and efficient process could be put in place with the intent of saving time and money while providing the type of transparency intended by CPRA.