It’s Sunshine Week – an annual celebration of your right to file public records requests. To celebrate, LA Public Press contributor Maylin Tu writes about how you can file records requests exactly like herself and other reporters in LA County. 

So, you wanna file a public records request in LA — great! You’ve come to the right place. 

Maybe you want to find out why the city of LA was obsessed with measuring unhoused people’s pee, or whether or not the LA Housing Department is striking a secret deal with a landlord, or how much your city councilmember spent on mailers last year, or what was happening behind the scenes at the mayor’s office when La Sombrita made its ignominious debut.

Welcome to the world of public records requests!

What are public records? They can be everything from emails to text or WhatsApp messages, to photos or videos created by the government in the course of doing public business. Nationally, public records are governed by the Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA. On a state level, public records in California are governed by the California Public Records Act or CPRA. 

“I learned about it as this thing that investigative reporters who win Pulitzer Prizes spend months and months doing,” said Jason Koebler, co-founder of and reporter for 404 Media. But you don’t have to be exposing government corruption with every public records request, he says. You can request public records for fun or silly things. 

In doing so, you will learn how to draft an effective request and get an inside, behind-the-scenes look at how your local government works (or doesn’t). 

“Baby’s first FOIA”

There are many possible jumping-off points for your first request, or “baby’s first FOIA” as Koebler calls it: public meetings, news articles, and your own neighborhood.

Koebler was walking past the pickleball courts near Venice Beach when he spotted a sign telling pickleballers to go home.

“And so I filed a request for all the complaints that were filed to the Department of Parks and Recreation that just mentioned the word ‘pickleball.’ And I got a bunch of documents back.”

Koebler filed many more requests about pickleball, ultimately writing for 404 Media about how “pickleball wars” have exploded across the country as citizens fight for limited public space.

“I would recommend people start with something that’s really close to their house and that they see regularly… because if they can see something with their own eyes, then likely the government has touched it in some way, shape or form.”

Jon Peltz, a freelance reporter, read a story in the LA Times about Jeffrey Katzenberger meeting with LA city councilmembers, and thought “This seems like a much bigger story.” His reporting on the billionaire’s secretive meetings with city officials was published in Knock LA. 

Figuring out who to submit to

Before you file your request, you must figure out where to send your request. This can be the most time-consuming part of the process because each agency and department manages and fulfills its own requests — there is no single centralized system.

If you’re filing in the city (not county) of LA, your best bet is to start with NextRequest, an online portal for filing requests with multiple departments, including the Bureau of Engineering, LADOT, the City Administrative Officer and two council districts, CD4 and CD5.

The closest thing to a central department for PRA requests in the city of LA is the Information Technology Agency (ITA). Sometimes other departments will tell you to submit your request to ITA, which you must submit via email but will appear in NextRequest (make it make sense). 

If you don’t find what you’re looking for on NextRequest, go to the website for that public official or agency and look for the PIO (public information officer). Submitting to them might be your best bet. No dice? Call or email the office and ask where to submit a CPRA request.

LA County keeps a list of its public information officers on one page (city of LA, take note).

Drafting the request

There is no one formula for what to ask for in a records request, but if there were it might go:

Send all emails, texts, etc. between Person A and Person B mentioning “Topic, word or phrase” from date X to date Y.

Who, what, when. 

There are templates available that include the legal language of the California Records Act, but many requesters prefer to keep it simple. Koebler suggests going on MuckRock and looking at successful examples (you can also do this on NextRequest).



I'd like to request the following public records:

All emails, texts, etc. to or from Dug ([email protected]) containing "squirrel" from 9/1/23 to the time this request is processed.

Please provide documents on a rolling basis.

Thank you!

“There’s no legally required language, you can just express your request in plain language that makes sense to you,” said Adrian Riskin, activist and founder of Michael Kohlhaas dot org.

That said, the more you can narrow it down, the better, says David Snyder, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition.

“I think one mistake that people make is thinking, ‘Well, I’m just going to ask for everything. And then I’ll figure out, once I get everything, how to narrow.’”

If your request is too broad, you may get more documents back than you can reasonably deal with. Also, it will take more time for the agency to find all the documents and process them. Better to start with a narrow request and then follow-up with additional requests as you learn more.

It can seem like an adversarial process, but Snyder counsels people to remember that “there’s a person on the other end of your request.” Someone, somewhere has to figure out what you are looking for and go find it. The easier you can make it for them, the more likely you are to get what you want.

If the person on the other end offers to get on the phone with you, do it. 

“You can develop relationships with people,” said Peltz. You may not become best friends, but they might help you better phrase your request to get what you want.

“Follow up, follow up, follow up”

Now for the not-so-fun part: Agencies that don’t give you the documents you requested in a timely fashion or at all. Or, you get back documents that are heavily redacted, removing all the juicy parts.

“It’s good to have a public records mindset, which includes an understanding that the timeframe here is going to be in weeks and perhaps months, not hours or days,” said Snyder.

This includes following up on your requests. Agencies are supposed to respond within 10 calendar days. Snyder recommends putting it on your calendar. It’s also helpful to keep a tracker of your requests in a spreadsheet with dates.

If you follow up and they still refuse to give you the records, you can sue them — but this option is expensive and time-consuming.

There is another way — showing up in person.

In 2016, when the LA Department of Sanitation refused to release CARE+ (homeless encampment sweeps) schedules to him in advance, Adrian Riskin started going to the department’s downtown office at 7 a.m. and waiting around to inspect them in person.

“Eventually, the city attorney pulled them to start showing them to me. And then eventually, I worked out a deal with the city attorney to give them to me the night before, because everybody wanted me to stop going into the building there,” said Riskin. 

“It really, really infuriated them.”

Riskin passed the torch to LA Taco reporter Lexis-Oliver Ray, who started a texting service to send out sweep schedules to unhoused people and advocates.

Overcoming denials and redactions

If the agency refuses to give you records, they must provide a reason, citing the relevant portion of the Public Records Act. But you can push back, something that Snyder calls an informal appeals process.

“Be mindful that an initial response isn’t the final response, and that there are folks out there, including [the First Amendment Coalition], who are ready and willing to help you with that process.” 

The First Amendment Coalition offers a free legal hotline that you can use to submit questions.

Koebler — noting that he is “extremely skeptical” of AI — has had success using ChatGPT to draft legal-sounding form letters that cite the relevant legal code when agencies withhold or redact documents. 

“Don’t let them intimidate you,” said Riskin. “Just remember that you have a constitutional right to see the records. And most of the time when they won’t give them to you, they’re wrong. Just keep pushing.”

Getting public records back can take time, so it’s important to play the long game.

Koebler suggests forming a habit of submitting public records requests and filing “early and often.” It also helps to file the same request with multiple agencies. The more requests you file, the more likely you are to be successful.

“Every time you get documents back, it feels like Christmas.”

Maylin Tu is a freelance writer covering transportation, mobility and equity in Los Angeles.