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What are Public Records?

The Act defines “public records” as “any writing containing information relating to the conduct of the public’s business prepared, owned, used, or retained by any state or local agency regardless of physical form or characteristics.”7 A writing is defined as “any handwriting, typewriting, printing, photostating, photographing, photocopying, transmitting by electronic mail or facsimile, and every other means of recording upon any tangible thing any form of communication or representation, including letters, words, pictures, sounds, or symbols, or combinations thereof, and any record thereby created, regardless of the manner in which the record has been stored.”8

The definition of a public record is quite broad and is intended to encompass much more than written or printed documents. A public record is subject to disclosure under the Act “regardless of its physical form or characteristics.”9 For example, email messages and other electronic information are public records if they otherwise meet the statutory definition.

Over the years the courts have both broadened and limited the scope of the definition of a “public record.” First, it is clear that the term “public records” encompasses more than simply those documents that public officials are required by law to keep as official records. Courts have held that a public record is one that is “necessary or convenient to the discharge of [an] official duty” such as a status memorandum provided to the City Manager on a pending project.10 Second, courts have observed that merely because the writing is in the possession of the local agency, it is not automatically a public record. It must relate to the conduct of the public’s business.11 For example, records containing purely personal information unrelated to the conduct of the people’s business, such as an employee’s personal address list or grocery list, are considered outside the scope of the Act.12

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