A little noticed but potentially significant (for public records researchers) California Attorney General opinion was released a week ago. The opinion upends the almost universal interpretation of the Public Records Act by county Assessors pertaining to disseminating property addresses on the Internet.
If you go to any California county Assessor online public inquiry you’ll see an explanation similar to this on the Stanislaus County site:
California Government Code 6254.21 states that “No state or local agency shall post the home address or telephone number of any elected or appointed official on the Internet without first obtaining the written permission of the individual.”
Therefore the agencies don’t reveal anyone’s address.The law seems to be hewed to regarding the real property addresses for public officials, right? Not according to the AG. Deputy Attorney General Daniel Stone says the common interpretation is wrong and isn’t what the legislature intended.
As a practical matter, we believe that a broad and overly literal reading of section 6254.21(a) would lead to unworkable results. Some public agencies…might conclude that they were forced to refrain from making any property-related database accessible to any internet technology, no matter how secure or limited the network, due to the possibility that the data could contain home information of public officials. Other public agencies… might conclude that they were forced to review and redact their databases… Such an identification process would be difficult, time consuming, and inevitably incomplete. Furthermore, the resulting revised property databases… would no longer be comprehensive and would therefore be of diminished utility to users. We are hesitant to conclude that the Legislature could have intended such impractical results.
Simply put, the 1998 law was “intended to prevent public agencies from posting on their public websites any list or directory of public officials’ home addresses and telephone numbers, without first obtaining each official’s written permission to be included in the listing.” In other words, government agencies can’t construct a list of names and residential addresses of government employees and put that on their Internet sites.
Giving the Assessors permission to reconsider their ban on including addresses and names in their online databases, Stone states, simply:
Indeed, we believe that if the Legislature had in fact contemplated a comprehensively literal application of section 6254.21(a), that intention would have been more clearly reflected in the statute.
Give a kindly call to your local Assessor and ask her/him what changes they anticipate making in their Internet access in light of this opinion. What did the Assessor say?
The President of the California Assessors Association, Mike Strong (Sutter County Assessor; MStrong (at) co (dot) sutter (dot) ca (dot) us), doesn’t agree with my reading of the Attorney General opinion. Here’s the text of his email to me: