In California, municipal animal shelters are expected to conduct their business in the open so that the public can hold them accountable for their actions. All state residents have the right to understand and monitor the performance of their local government agencies, as set forth in both the California
Though this blog post contains legal information, it was not prepared by an attorney, and therefore it is not intended as legal advice or as any practice of law.
Here at Hound Manor we have sometimes used the CPRA to obtain copies of animal shelter records; so we can pass along a basic scheme for submitting your own requests. The CPRA is intricate, but a lot of information about it is readily available. Here are a few good general references:
- A Guide to the California Public Records Act published by the League of California
- Summary of the California Public Records Act published by the California Attorney General’s
- California Public Records Act synopsis published by the First Amendment
And this helpful article is specific to animal shelter records:
- Forcing Transparency written by attorney Kate
① Submit Your Request
The Neiswender article includes a sample public records request. Here is another sample. Starting from these, you can tailor your own specific request. The submission process varies across municipalities. Look for instructions on the local government web site. If you come up empty, get in touch with the city or county clerk’s office and ask how to submit your request.
The animal services agency has ten days to
If you got the records then you are done. Otherwise, keep reading.
④ Argue for Disclosure
Sometimes the animal services agency will want to withhold or redact a portion of the records. If so, they must explain in writing why that portion is exempt from
Once you understand the position the animal services agency has taken, you can argue for disclosure of the records or the missing content, if you believe the information is not legitimately exempt. The CPRA favors access and all exemptions must be construed narrowly. Also, remember to check local law, because some places, like San Francisco and Alameda, have their own Sunshine Ordinances that magnify the requirements for openness already established in state law.
Always keep in mind that animal shelter managers, civil servants, and even government attorneys oftentimes are focused on other matters and may not have an extensive, or even a passable, understanding of public-records requirements. When you have done your homework, you may be better informed. Trust your own understanding and your own judgment, and be ready to explain how things stand and what you believe is right.
Most public-records disputes are very fact-based, making it hard to give any kind of comprehensive recipe for constructing an argument for disclosure. Nevertheless, here are a few examples to illustrate how an argument might be made:
Example: Medical Records
When medical records are withheld or redacted, you might argue:
The provision of medical care in animal shelters is mandated by state
law.Therefore, proper medical care is important for the public to monitor.
While California law generally protects the confidentiality of veterinary records, an explicit exception is made for the veterinary records of shelter animals, which are public records and are subject to
The personal privacy exemption, the intent of which is to protect the intimate details of personal life, does not apply, since revealing the identity or work-related actions of a veterinarian or any specially trained and certified employee performing their daily duties is not an “unwarranted invasion of personal
privacy.”Furthermore, California law requires the recording of the name of any person medically treating or performing euthanasia on a shelter animal.
Example: Euthanasia Logs
When the lethal-injection euthanasia log (aka the opened container log) is withheld or redacted, for example to keep confidential the dosage used or the identification of the person performing the procedure, you might argue:
- The barbiturate used for lethal-injection is a federally controlled substance and California law requires anyone performing euthanasia in an animal shelter to be properly trained and
certified.Therefore, both the specifics of the euthansia procedure and who performs it are important for the public to monitor.
- The taking up of stray dogs is mandated by state
law.Therefore, when euthanasia is used to meet that mandate, it is important for the public to monitor.
- The personal privacy exemption does not apply (just as for medical records; see above).
The CPRA includes a catch-all exemption for unusual cases where maintaining confidentiality overwhelmingly serves the public interest better than
You may receive an invoice before any records are released. Many local governments do not charge for animal shelter records, but under the CPRA agencies are permitted to charge either a statutory fee or the direct cost of duplicating the
For electronic records, the actual direct time-and-materials cost of duplication is going to be very small, and it is going to be essentially the same for 10,000 records as it is for 10 records. However, some local governments seek to recover wider costs. According to the League of California Cities, no fees may be charged for searching for records, reviewing them, redacting them, assisting the requestor, or responding to the
When duplication fees are a stumbling block, you might consider whether you can get the information you seek by arranging to visit the animal shelter and view the original records. The CPRA requires agencies to permit inspection of
Other Fees for Electronic Records
Sometimes the animal services agency will try to assess a fee for “computer programming” or custom “extraction” or “compilation” of electonic records, which in certain atypical cases is permitted under the
These days, most animal shelters employ an enterprise-class case-management system for their record keeping, like Chameleon/CMS, that is capable of generating a wide variety of data exports and standard reports at the push of a button. Consequently, it should be a very rare case where actual computer programming or a significant amount of manual work is required to get information out of the system. More often than not there is some relevant screen, report, or data export the animal services agency uses themselves, or uses to share information with other partner organizations, that contains most or all of the information in question.
The agency has a duty to assist you in understanding how to get the answers you seek. Specifically, they are required by law to help you make a focused and effective request, by working with you to identify records and information and to understand the technology and physical location in which the records exist, and by providing “suggestions for overcoming any practical basis for denying access to the records or information
⑤ Enlist Allies
If your arguments for disclosure, or against unreasonable fees, do not bear fruit, you might consider who else can influence the situation, and who possibly has an interest in good government and transparency. For example, the city or county clerk, the city or county information officer, the city or county attorney, the city or county manager, members of the City Council or the County Board of Supervisors, the city mayor, or your representatives in the state legislature. Sometimes an authoritative letter is all that is needed to gain release of the records; so also consider enlisting a local attorney to send a letter or asking the State Attorney General to intervene.
As well, you can seek broader support in your fight for openness by writing to local newspapers or news web portals, posting your story to social media, or approaching local television news media.
⑥ Last Resort
The last and most extreme option is to file a civil action seeking a court order for the release of the records. If you choose to litigate, and you win in court, the CPRA requires the animal services agency to pay your costs and legal
Being an Advocate
Seeking the public records of an animal shelter is all about information, but the information is not the end in itself; it merely illuminates what is going on. If you encounter significant friction, be sure to remain aware of specifically what information you need and whether it can be gotten through other means, for instance, by talking with individual shelter staff members or volunteers or by visiting the shelter.
If you live in a place with great local government, the whole process will be a breeze. Typically, though, you will encounter some resistance and some bureaucracy, but in the end will be be able to get at least the most pertinent information. In the worst case, where the animal services agency fights against any and all public inquiry, you are probably dealing with an agency that has far bigger behavioral problems than records disclosure. It might be that the best you can do, as an advocate, is to disseminate your story about the agency’s insistence on secrecy, while trying other approaches to collect information and achieve reform.
Part of the reason why getting public animal shelter records is often such a struggle is that so few people ask for them, or even realize they can ask for them. Many animal shelters are simply not experienced in revealing their records to the public, and may not even believe they are required to do so. If you have taken the step to submit a public records request, then you are already in the rare category of advocate that uses whatever tools are available to strive for much needed change.