Agencies get poor marks on access test

CALIFORNIA — Student journalists conducting an access project at Chico State University found that accessing public records can be tricky, especially when government agencies are not familiar with what is considered a public record under the law.

Seven students put together an audit of local and campus agencies as part of an advanced reporting class to determine the level of compliance the agencies have with the California Public Records Act.

Nicole Ruiz, former managing editor of The Orion, the Chico State University student newspaper, said the paper provided space for students in the reporting class to have their stories published. Articles describing the project ran in print and online editions of the newspaper in May.

The goal was to see how accessible public records are to people who are not journalists, so the students did not identify themselves as such unless asked specifically. Two students admitted to being reporters when asked directly.

‘Public records are something many people take for granted and assume because the law says they are public that they will be accessible when that is not always the case,’ Ruiz said. ‘It was also an interesting experiment to see just what information is public.’

The students visited seven agencies including Butte College, a local school district, a county office, a police department, a sheriff-coroner’s office, and several Chico State University departments. They requested 18 public records, including ‘meeting minutes and logs of 911 calls, landlord citations for health and safety violations, lists of students expelled from schools, and rosters matching public employees to their salaries,’ according to The Orion.

Some agencies made the information easily available — two-thirds provided access to students who did not say they were reporters. The Chico Police Department easily provided 911 logs, while the Chico State department of finance and management sent the reporters on a trip around campus in search of the names and salaries of full-time professors. The students eventually obtained the information when directed to the campus library.

Other agencies rejected the students’ requests altogether — one-third denied access, while others required a written request or an explanation before they would release the records.

Glen Bleske, the professor who taught the students’ reporting class and oversaw the project, said the students were dismayed by some of the responses they received when requesting records.

‘I think the students became somewhat frustrated, especially when their requests were rejected or they were passed on to someone else who in turn passed them on,’ Bleske said. ‘I think it took a lot of courage for the students to face the hostile custodians of public records, custodians who believed their duty was to keep information out of the hands of the merely curious.’