The Ask: Tips on accessing public records

The Ask: Tips on accessing public records

We submit public records requests a lot. As journalists, we use public records all of the time in our reporting.

For example, reporter Megan Wood requested audited financial statements for San Diego Christian College from the U.S. Department of Education in 2017. She used those documents in a story that showed the college had endured financial troubles for years.

But as journalists, we don’t have special rights to access public records. We’re like any other member of the public when we ask local, state and federal agencies for access to records. Just like you, we have a right to know what our government agencies are doing.

The California Public Records Act allows you access to local and state government records in California.

The Freedom of Information Act allows you access to some but not all federal government records. For example, the White House and Congress are exempt. But you can seek records from the executive branch, including cabinet departments such as Education, Health and Human Services, and Veteran Affairs, the military branches, and independent federal commissions.

As part of inewsource’s ongoing The Ask video series, we asked what you wanted to know about public records. From Facebook and Twitter posts, we happily got several questions.

We had Megan answer a few of them and share her advice on public records.

Is there a fee to get public records?

Tip: Assume everything is free!

There is no charge for filing public records requests, but fees may be charged for duplicating records and in some cases the time spent copying them.

When writing a request, ask the agency to waive all fees because your request is in the public interest and not for commercial use. Here’s language you can include:

“I am requesting that you waive all applicable fees associated with this request as I believe this information will contribute significantly to public understanding of government operations and activities. If you deny this request for a fee waiver, please advise me in advance of the estimated charges if they are to exceed $10. Please also send a detailed and itemized explanation of those charges.”

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What kinds of documents can you request under the California Public Records Act?

There are so many things you can request — even records about yourself. Examples include marriage, birth and death records, property records, and court and criminal records. You can also get state and local government employees’ emails, salaries and calendars.

If you’re not sure what type of records an agency holds, you can ask for its records retention schedule. The retention schedule details what records an agency maintains and for how long it will maintain them. Here’s an example from the San Diego Police Department.

Keep in mind not all records are included in this. Any information recorded in the course of doing government business is a public record, minus specific exemptions for such things as personnel and investigative records. In these cases, you can request an agency to redact the exempt information and disclose the remainder of the record.

More details on California public record exemptions can be found here.

What kinds of documents can you request under the Freedom of Information Act?

You can request any federal agency record, but it could get denied, or parts of it could be redacted, if it falls under one of the nine exemptions. Examples you can request are employee salaries, calendars, inspection reports, memos and budgets.

Do you have any other general tips?

My best advice would be to call the agency before submitting your records request. California law allows you to ask for public records verbally, but most government agencies want you to put it in writing. Tell the agency’s record clerk what you’re looking for and ask for advice that might help expedite your request.

Be sure to follow up often on your request. Agencies in California have 10 days to initially respond to a request, and federal agencies have 20 days. But don’t expect you’ll have anything by then. There is no deadline to actually fulfill the request.

If you’re denied the records you are looking for, make sure to ask the agency to cite a specific reason under the law for the exemption.

A final bit of help and a request from The Ask

Here’s a sample California public records request letter and a FOIA request letter from the First Amendment Coalition, which describes itself as a “nonprofit public interest organization dedicated to advancing free speech, more open and accountable government, and public participation in civic affairs.” Some of us at inewsource are members of the coalition.

Lastly, if you’ve made a public records request in the past or are inspired now to make one, we want to hear about it. Did you get the information you asked for? Let us know by emailing me at shylanott@inewsource.org.

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About Shyla Nott:

Shyla Nott
Shyla Nott is a social media web producer for inewsource. To contact her with tips, suggestions or corrections, please email shylanott [at] inewsource [dot] org.