As a citizen, many things about government may concern you (i.e., taxes, safety, policies, zoning, etc.). You need to focus on exactly what it is that you want to know about the business of the public and be prepared to ask for documents relating to your concern. Government Code ("GC") A?A? 6250 -6276.8 provides you with the tools you need to understand how your government works.
Don't Let Them Claim They Don't Know What You Are Looking For
A common tactic, used in response to a public records request, is to claim that the custodian of records doesn't know what you are looking for and, therefore, cannot respond to your request. Due to a constitutional amendment, by initiative process, the People of the State of California have brought an end to such lame excuses. Under the Public Records Act, the custodian of records has an actual duty to assist in locating exactly what it is that you are looking for. GC 6253.1. Also, don't let them claim that e-mails have been destroyed or that they do not have a policy regarding the retention of e-mails. They have a duty to keep all records relating to the business of the public. We know, we helped write the law which recognized the need to treat e-mail just like any other records.
How to Request Documents & How to See Them
The request should be in writing and sent to the custodian of records. This is normally a City Clerk, City Manager, Clerk of the Board, or similar position. Technically, you do have the right to go down to the agency and demand to see records, on the spot, during normal business hours. However, most agencies keep records archived and they may not be that easily available. You also want to put it in writing so that you have a record of what you asked for (i.e., so that when they deny the request ever occurred, you have proof). If the records are not immediately available for copying, the agency may take 10 days to produce copies, and may ask for an extension of 14 additional days. GC 6253, 6253.
What Is Not Discoverable?
The agency has the burden of showing non-discoverability. GC 6253(a). Generally speaking, any documents having to do with personnel discipline or hiring, police internal policies, or certain draft documents, are not discoverable under the PRA. However, you should probably make your request and make a determination as to whether discoverable information may actually get you to the same place you intend to go in terms of your request. You should also know that information concerning the workings of the Judiciary, private nonprofits, and a lot of private individual information is not available. GC 6253.2, 6253.5, 6253.6, 6254, 6254.1-6254.22, 6255, 6267, 6268, 6276.02-6276.48.
When to Call an Attorney -- Right After Denial of Your Request !!!
If the agency refuses to abide by your request, do not wait to hire an attorney. There are deadlines for taking action under the Act. Your attorney may also be able to recover his/her fees in any litigation against the agency over records. The fee award may be made even if you only get part of the records as the "prevailing party."
Additional resources provided by the author
First Amendment Project
California First Amendment Coalition