10 Practical Tips for the Public Records Act requester

Many local governments and state agencies in Tennessee are happy to assist citizens in their requests for public records, and answer questions about the process. But that doesn’t mean it’s always easy, and sometimes you face government employees who either don’t know the law about open records or are resistant for some other reason to your request. For a citizen, it can be confusing because not all governmental agencies have the same process and policy for getting records. Some are simply more helpful and citizen-friendly than others. Here are 10 tips to help you be more successful.

1. Find out the agency’s policy for records requests.

If you are requesting copies of a public record, you may be required to make a written request. You can use our sample letter request, and customize it with your information. Other custodians may have adopted a form developed by the Office of Open Records Counsel, with instructions for use. Either way, find out ahead of time by checking the agency’s website or by calling. You might be required to show identification before copies are made, or before being allowed to inspect the records.

2. Make  your request specific

Keep in mind that a custodian is not required to create a record that doesn’t exist. The more specific you can be, the better. If it’s possible, talk with a records custodian about your request before you make it. That person may be willing to help you clarify your request, particularly if it’s a broad request and you can narrow it down and still get what you want.

3.  Ask to inspect unfamiliar records.

The Public Records Act provides a statutory right to inspect records, not just to obtain copies. You do not have to make a written request to inspect records, nor can you be charged to inspect records. So don’t be too quick to reject the inspection option, particularly if the responsive records are unfamiliar. It may be that you can understand the information you’re seeking better by inspecting originals before requesting copies. If your request is voluminous, consider asking to inspect a smaller portion of the records to get a better idea of how the records are organized. This might help you narrow your request when you ask to see the remaining records.

4. If you want copies, agree in advance to pay the 15 cent cost per page for records that are only a few pages.

Agencies have a statutory right to charge “reasonable fees” for copies of records. The standard copy charge is 15 cents per page for a black and white copy, 50 cents for a color copy.  So, if you know the records being sought are only a couple of pages long – for example, a police report on a minor traffic accident – offer in your request letter to pay 15 cents per page for any copies. That agreement might make the agency more likely to respond by simply sending you the records instead of taking the time to contact you to see if you’ll pay for the copies. The law says that the first hour of labor required to compile the records is free, so many times there will be no labor charge. However, if your request is large, you may be required to pay for labor and you should ask in your request for an estimate of labor charges before copies are made.

5. Ask for a written explanation of a denial.

The Tennessee Public Records Act requires agencies to state the basis in writing for any denial of a records request. The denial should include the legal reason for the denial, such as the specific statutory exemption that allows for the record to be confidential. Reminding the agency of that obligation will help to educate new employees who might not be familiar with the law and will show the agency that you’re familiar with your rights and the agency’s obligations. If you think you have been wrongly denied a record, you can contact TCOG or the Office of Open Records Counsel.

6. Ask for a prompt acknowledgement and response.

The Public Records Act requires the agency to make records available to citizens promptly. If that’s not practicable, the law says the agency has seven business days in which to respond to the requester. It’s worth reminding the agency of the “prompt” language in the law. Just because seven days are allowed doesn’t mean a simple request for a readily available document should be delayed.

 7. Be willing to take one bite at a time.

If you expect the agency will have a lot of responsive records, consider starting with a narrow request and then making follow-up requests. If the first request doesn’t answer your question, you can make a follow-up request. This could speed up the response time and avoid extra work all around.

8. Be willing to negotiate.

If an agency calls or writes in response to your request, pay careful attention to any explanation that’s given. It might be that the request was phrased in a way that didn’t describe the records the way the agency does. If so, it might help to rephrase your request. The law contains no limit on the number of requests that a person can make. So, if rephrasing a request will help the agency respond more quickly with the needed information, be willing to negotiate and, if necessary, to revise your request.

9. Pay attention to labor fees and don’t be afraid to ask for more explanation.

If you have made a request to obtain copies of records, the governing entity is allowed to charge reasonable fees to cover the cost of compiling records. There is a Schedule of Reasonable Charges developed by the Office of Open Records Counsel that will give you an idea of what to expect. But if you receive an estimate of charges, pay close attention and don’t be afraid to challenge a labor charge if it seems unreasonable. For example, redacting Social Security numbers and home addresses from four job applications shouldn’t take four hours. Be polite, but firm, if you think the agency has “gold-plated” the labor fees. You can contact TCOG if you feel you are being overcharged, or the Office of Open Records Counsel.

 10. Don’t give up!

Keep asking for the records even if the agency delays or doesn’t respond. Particularly if you deal with that agency often, a reputation for giving up easily might lead the agency to be even less helpful next time. Also, if agencies learn that requester take their access rights seriously, officials will be encouraged to be more open and accessible. And if that happens, we’re all better off.

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