If you’ve ever had a question or concern about how government at any level is operating, Sunshine Laws can be your best friend. Sunshine Laws require the government to disclose virtually all non-privileged information in a timely fashion.
Open Records Requests under open government laws can be excellent tools for political campaigns, for journalists, for students, and for anyone who has any interest in obtaining information that has been historically difficult to obtain. Here’s how to file an Open Records Request:
What Information Can I Request?
The sunshine laws in most states are liberally written and may allow you to access records for government contractors, minutes of city council meetings, and virtually any other record for which the government keeps a paper trail.
Some educational records as well as items that are attorney-client privileged are exempt from Open Records laws. For an overview of state by state laws, this site has an excellent guide.
Who Should I Contact?
It’s generally best to contact a person who has authority over a particular department whose records you are requesting. For example, contact the police chief for police records, the superintendent for school board records, and the mayor’s office for City Council information.
Some local governments will have specific information on their websites about where to send Open Records Requests. If you are seeking records for a local government, the city attorney’s office may be the best bet for a prompt response.
What Should I Say?
Many sites dedicated to the First Amendment have excellent templates for Open Records Requests. Check out this site for some examples. Generally, it’s a good idea to be as specific as possible.
Don’t leave anything open to interpretation that can then be used to send you the wrong documents or claim that your request does not make sense. You do not have to say why you are using the records.
Can They Charge Me?
You can be charged the costs of making copies as well as the hourly wage of the lowest paid employee capable of doing the work. Some governments will try to hike up the charges by providing you with lots of information you don’t want, which is just one more reason to be very specific. If you have any concerns about the charges, you can write and ask for clarification.
What If My Request is Ignored or Declined?
Government officials have a short window of time in which to reply to you and let you know how long compiling the records will take. Most states set a limit of 3-7 days, so check the laws in your state. You should make sure to send certified copies of any requests and keep a copy as well, so that there is no question about whether or not your request made it to the right person.
If your request is ignored, or denied for reasons not listed in your state’s exemptions, contact your state’s Attorney General’s office. You should send a nicely worded follow up letter notifying the official that you are again requesting records and that, should your request be denied, you are contacting the state Attorney General’s office.
Though it can occasionally be difficult to get governments to obey Open Records laws, it’s important for citizens to have access to the actions and papers of the people they have put in charge. Be diligent, respectful, and always polite, and remind yourself that seeking government records is your right as a member of a democracy!