Thursday, August 22, 2019     Volume: 20, Issue: 25

Santa Maria Sun / Cover Story

The following article was posted on March 18th, 2019, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 20, Issue 2 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [] - Volume 20, Issue 2

Sunshine Week: Breaking down public access to government records

By Various Authors

You’d be surprised at the documents, emails, text messages, and more that you can request from your local government. And most of the time, that entity will acquiesce. I’ve received emails between city council members and constituents, property tax records for oil companies, letters to the Environmental Protection Agency, calls for public safety service in certain areas, and wildfire investigation reports. Generally speaking, all you have to do is ask—or the least you could do is ask.

Lucky for us (and I do mean all of us, not just intrepid reporters), the California Public Records Act passed in 1968 gives us access to a lot. The best thing about an official records request is that the government has to respond (within 10 business days in the Golden State). A public official doesn’t have to respond to phone calls, they don’t have to answer your questions—but if you request their emails, they are legally required to hand them over. Well, let me put a caveat on that: The worst thing that can happen is that a government entity’s counsel will cite some arcane legalese to deny your request, which does happen.

In 2005, the American Society of Newspaper Editors launched the first national Sunshine Week (March 10 through 15), a celebration of access to public information. This year, the Sun decided to join in the festivities, because, really, the California Public Records Act and the federal Freedom of Information Act allow citizens to see the way government operates, where tax dollars go, who government officials are interacting with, and how and why decisions are made.

—Camillia Lanham

PRA power!

How we used public records to report on health care in local jails.


In 2017 and 2018, deaths in local jails were one of the most talked about news topics on the Central Coast.

In San Luis Obispo County, a string of inmate deaths—including the highly publicized death of Andrew Holland—sparked an FBI investigation, and the issue became a major topic in the 2018 county sheriff election race. Santa Barbara County’s jail was also struggling as it tried to make improvements to care for inmates while also being sued over allegedly poor conditions.

I decided to tackle the issue of jail inmate health care and its connection with deaths at both facilities in an in-depth story for both the New Times and the Sun. I reported on and wrote the articles as a fellowship project with the USC Annenberg School of Journalism.

I knew that getting records through the California Public Records Act (PRA) would be a critical tool in reporting on the jails. The records I was eventually able to gather formed the foundation of the resulting story, “Health care behind bars,” which ran in both papers in April 2018.

The story, which was reported using hundreds of pages of documents from multiple local and state agencies, was a large-scale lesson in both the strengths and weaknesses of the state’s public records laws. My task was to get a definitive list of every inmate who’d died in custody at both jails between 2000 and 2017. After learning that local jails had to report inmate deaths to the California Department of Justice, I began with a PRA request for such reports from both jails. The agency responded quickly with a spreadsheet that gave me the names and dates of more than 40 inmates who had died in either facility.


While I finally had the names, I knew I’d need much more information to truly get a sense of what was going on inside the two jails. I wanted to know not just when these inmates died, but what they died of; if they were hospitalized and where; and what, if any, medical conditions they suffered from. In order to do this, I put in two large records requests to the sheriff’s departments of SLO and Santa Barbara counties for autopsy, toxicology, and medical examiner reports for every inmate on the list. The documents I received in response contained a wealth of information. The data revealed that the majority of inmate deaths at both jails were due to natural causes, and more importantly, that the bulk of the inmates who died of natural causes had at least one or more chronic medical conditions such as hypertension, diabetes, cirrhosis, and others.

Coupled with concerns and allegations raised in lawsuits and grand jury reports—both of which are also available to the public thanks to our state’s open records laws—the resulting story raised questions about the role of medical care at both facilities in inmate deaths.

While California’s public records laws were critical in enabling me to track down information for the story, they also allowed at least some of the information I’d been looking for to remain in the shadows. Exemptions in both California’s Public Records Law and HIPPA, a federal law that protects the privacy of medical records, prevented me from getting detailed information about medical conditions and care for living inmates, which may have painted a clearer picture about past and present conditions in both jails.

SLO County also used an exemption in the open records law, which protects documents created between attorneys and their clients, to deny our request for the independent assessment of jail medical care commissioned by the county. While my editor and I don’t believe that the exemption applies to the report, the county has held fast in its denial, and the report remains unreleased to this day.

One of the most amazing aspects of this project, to me, is that access to information isn’t just open to journalists, activists, or government officials. It’s available to everyone. In truth, every one of our readers could have requested the same documents that we did, all thanks to the taxpayers’ rights to obtain and inspect information created by the government.

For nearly every important issue, project, or expenditure, citizens have the ability to obtain data, documents, reports, and myriad other pieces of information used to make important decisions that impact their everyday lives. This elevates public records laws beyond a mere tool for journalists and the media. These laws are a critical pillar of keeping our government accountable to the people it’s designed to serve.

Sun Staff Writer Chris McGuinness is filing public records act requests like a mofo at


The best disinfectant

Public records reporting is stronger than ever


For a law associated with sunshine, the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) hasn’t had much time in the limelight. Long considered the domain of dogged investigative journalists and crackpot conspiracy theorists, FOIA spent much of the new millennium in the shadow of its more photogenic younger sibling, Open Data. As the world became more digital and transparency became the default, the idea of citing some arcane legalese to be begrudgingly granted access to records—paper records—seemed such a laughably archaic concept that the whole thing had to be on its way out, replaced by something far more efficient any day now.


And yet here we are, in the middle what feels like a FOIA renaissance. A little more than half a century after FOIA was first signed into law—with state-level public records laws quickly following suit—and more people than ever are asserting their legal right to hold government accountable, at the highest level as well as in their own neighborhoods. Isolation has given way to community, as journalists, activists, and concerned citizens work together to uncover new and exciting ways to sleuth out what’s being done by ostensible public servants. By so doing, they remind the government just who it’s working for.

For Sunshine Week, we wanted to look at how public records have been behind some of the biggest headlines of the year, and how those stories can inspire a whole new crop of reporting. Sunlight may be the best disinfectant, but transparency is contagious.

National heavy hitters

• A memo released to the public accountability groups Open the Government and the Project on Government Oversight revealed that Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen had indeed signed off on a policy of separating immigrant children from their families at the border, despite the administration’s claims to the contrary.

• Contracts released to the Associated Press revealed the Department of Veterans Affairs has spent almost $3 million on private security for Confederate cemeteries following the deadly protests in Charlottesville, Virginia.

• Schedules of several Department of the Interior executives released to reporter Jimmy Tobias reveal that the agency is repeatedly opting to meet with industry groups, lawyers, and activists who oppose environmental protections over conservationists.

• In response to a MuckRock request for the reporting and analysis that the Department of the Treasury used to claim that a Trump tax cut will generate $1.8 trillion in revenue, the agency produced a one-page memo that had been referenced in the request.

• Enforcement records released to the medical journal JAMA revealed that the Food and Drug Administration turned a blind eye to almost a decade of inappropriate prescription and distribution practices for the opioid fentanyl.

On the lighter side of the feds

• A list of research projects released to the Federation of American Scientists revealed a multi-million-dollar program for fringe space theories including stargates, invisibility cloaks, and warp drives funded by the Department of Defense.

• After noticing what appeared to be trading cards for K-9 units of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency at a veterinarian’s office in Virginia, reporter Joshua Eaton obtained a full set through FOIA.

• Photos released to ThinkProgress showed Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin enjoying his trip to Fort Knox, including several shots of him and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell holding gold bars.

• Development materials released to Emma Best show the considerations that went into the costume for the Department of Energy’s official mascot for renewable energy, the Green Reaper.

• Federal Communication Commission complaints released to MuckRock show the public outrage from Michelle Wolf’s now-infamous White House Correspondents Dinner remarks.

At the state level

• After a request from Vanessa Nason revealed the extent of Juneau, Alaska’s backlog of untested rape kits, the state earmarked $2.75 million to test kits all over the state.

• More than 500 police use-of-force reports released to NJ Advance Media were used to create New Jersey’s first comprehensive database of law enforcement violence.

• College football concussion reports released to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution show a huge variance in the number of incidents reported and that many schools don’t track the data at all.

• A copy of the Chicago Police Department’s “gang database” released to the Chicago Tribune revealed more than 128,000 people listed as gang members, with some alleged members being in their 80s.

• More than 200 requests filed by MuckRock related to Amazon HQ2 bids reveal millions in tax incentives offered to the company, as well as a hostility to public oversight of the process.

Fun at the local level

• Traffic violation data released to The New York Times reveal a marked increase in the number of speeding tickets issued around the release of each film in the Fast and the Furious franchise.

• Financial records released to Tom Nash reveal that the revisionist Civil War drama Field of Lost Shoes, written by a Virginia energy executive, received $1 million in public funds from the Virginia Film Office.

• Photographs released to William Pierce capture an EMS training exercise in Delaware County, Ohio, in which volunteers helped simulate a zombie outbreak.

• Permits and impound lists released to Lucas Larson reveal how cities all over the country prepared for the sudden onslaught of e-scooters.

• Press releases and incident reports regarding the dangers of Halloween candy released to Paxtyn Merten revealed a lot of fears over marijuana-infused candies, but no recorded incidents.

File your own

But for all of the challenges agencies put up to access records, persistence, and creativity often lead to important releases that shed new light on government, our communities, and our country. Visit to see a random idea from our new database of public records requests that have worked—and sample text you can use to file similar requests in your community.

JPat Brown is the executive editor of MuckRock, a Massachusetts-based nonprofit collaborative news site devoted to giving the public tools to keep our government transparent and accountable.


The cost of loss

Loss of local news hinders ability to watchdog government


One of the last investigations Jim Boren oversaw before he retired as executive editor of The Fresno Bee was a four-month examination of substandard housing in the city at the heart of California’s Central Valley.

The multimedia project revealed the living conditions imposed on many of the city’s low-income renters, many of them immigrants: apartments filled with mold, mice, and cockroaches, to name some of the more glaring problems. Local housing advocates compared it to the tainted water crisis in Flint, Michigan.

The investigation got immediate results.

“We made people’s lives better. We changed laws,” said Boren, who retired in 2017 and is now director of the Institute for Media and Public Trust at Fresno State University.


Among other things, the city responded by requiring property owners to make repairs when it found violations, rather than just levy fines.

“Those are the kinds of things that journalists do,” Boren said.

It’s the kind of journalism—holding local government officials accountable for problems that affect the lives of real people—that is in danger of being lost in many communities around the country.

Newspapers are closing or being consolidated at an astounding rate, often leaving behind what researchers label as news deserts—towns and even entire counties that have no consistent local media coverage.

According to an Associated Press analysis of data compiled by the University of North Carolina, more than 1,400 towns and cities in the U.S. have lost a newspaper over the past 15 years. Many of those are in rural and lower-income areas, often with an aging population.

The loss of a reliable local news source has many consequences for the community. One of them is the inability to watchdog the actions of government agencies and elected officials.

Newspapers typically have played the lead role in their communities in holding local officials accountable. That includes filing requests to get public records that shine a light on government action—or inaction—or even filing lawsuits to promote transparency.

“Strong newspapers have been good for democracy, and both educators and informers of a citizenry and its governing officials. They have been problem-solvers,” said Penelope Muse Abernathy, a University of North Carolina professor who studies news industry trends and oversaw the “news desert” report released last fall.

“That is what you are missing when you don’t have someone covering you and bringing transparency or sunlight onto government decisions and giving people a say in how those government decisions are made,” Abernathy said.

The absence of a local newspaper playing a watchdog role also can translate into real costs to a community and its taxpayers.

Researchers from the University of Illinois at Chicago and the University of Notre Dame found that municipal borrowing costs increase after a newspaper ceases publication. They found the increase had nothing to do with the economy. Rather, the demise of a paper leaves readers in the dark and emboldens elected officials to sign off on higher wages, larger payrolls, and ballooning budget deficits, their study found.

“Our evidence suggests that a local government is more likely to engage in wasteful spending when there is no local newspaper to report on that government,” said University of Illinois Chicago’s Dermot Murphy, one of the study’s authors. “Investors find it riskier to lend money to wasteful governments, and thus the costs of financing public infrastructure projects, such as schools, hospitals, and roadways, for a local government are higher.”

Stanford University’s James Hamilton applies a wider lens to the problem of newspaper closures, examining the benefits that come with investigative journalism—and what is lost when it disappears.

In his book Democracy’s Detective, he examined several case studies of newspaper investigations, including police shootings of civilians, and found that each dollar spent by the news organization generated hundreds of dollars in benefits to society.

“When investigative scrutiny declines, stories go untold, which means waste, fraud, and abuse will be less likely to be discovered,” said Hamilton, director of the Stanford Journalism Program. “News outlets will still have stories about a bad doctor, identified through court cases or patient complaints. The story about a bad hospital, which would require more resources and analysis to document, will be less likely to be told.”

Michael Casey’s column was made available via the Sunshine Week 2019 reporting package from the American Society of Newspaper Editors. Questions about public records? Feel free to contact Sun Editor Camillia Lanham at

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