Requesting Public Records
Ten practical tips for the Public Records Act requester
Florida has a well-deserved reputation for allowing public access to most government records. But that reputation does not mean the right of access is always easy to assert. Here are ten practical tips that can help open up public records:
1. Put the request in writing.
Although the Public Records Act does not require that requests be submitted in writing, doing so provides real practical benefits to the requester (as long as he or she doesn’t mind that the request itself then becomes a public record). The benefits include eliminating uncertainty about what was sought and when. In fact, to make doubly sure a request is received, submit the same request two ways – for example, by U.S. Mail and facsimile. It’s unlikely an agency will lose both copies of the same request. Plus, a fax confirmation sheet proves the request was actually delivered at a particular time and date and to a particular fax number.
2. Ask to inspect unfamiliar or voluminous records.
The Public Records Act provides a statutory right to inspect records, not just to obtain copies. Don’t be too quick to reject the inspection option, particularly if the responsive records are voluminous or unfamiliar. It may be that you can save money, obtain a quick response, and understand the information you’re seeking better by inspecting originals before requesting copies.
3. Agree in advance to pay 15 cents per page for copies of records that are only a few pages.
Agencies have a statutory right to charge 15 cents per page for copies of most records. 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.
4. Ask for a citation to any exemption.
The Public Records Act requires agencies to state the basis for any claim that requested records are exempt and to provide a statutory citation to the claimed exemption. 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.
5. Ask for a written explanation of a denial.
A requester has the right to a written statement explaining with particularity the reasons for a conclusion by the agency that the records are exempt. So every request letter ought to include language asking for such a written explanation.
6. Ask for a prompt acknowledgment and response.
The Public Records Act requires the agency to acknowledge requests promptly and to respond in good faith. It’s worth reminding the agency of that obligation.
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. For example, if you want to know how much a veteran politician uses a city-issued cell phone, you could start by asking for just last month’s bill, which is probably more easily accessible than every bill for the last twelve years. Then, if last month’s bill doesn’t answer your question, you can make a follow-up request.
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. Make practice requests.
If you expect to deal with the same agency regularly and will sometimes need records in a hurry, consider making a practice request. For example, if you are a reporter covering a particular sheriff’s office, you might ask for reports concerning incidents at your home address. If you make the request politely and treat the agency’s employees courteously, the experience could smooth the way for the next request, when you might need another incident report more quickly.
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 takes their access rights seriously, officials will be encouraged to be more open and accessible. And if that happens, we’re all better off.
Jim Lake is a media lawyer with the firm of Thomas & LoCicero in Tampa. He is also an adjunct professor at the Stetson University College of Law and a former journalist.
Please note that a public records request does not have to be made in writing. However, should you want to make a written request, the following letters can be used as a model. Simply fill in the appropriate date, address, and salutation, and describe the records you are requesting.
This form is designed to help you create a simple letter. It asks you for all pertinent information and guides you through the options available. You can use this letter generator to request access to records held by a state or local government agency or body (e.g., public school district, city or campus police, the state board of health, etc.). If you want to obtain records held by the federal government, we recommend using the letter generator offered by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.
Guidelines for Providing Public Records
MODEL GUIDELINES FOR PROVIDING PUBLIC RECORDS
The [governmental entity] fully embraces the tenets set forth in the Public Records Law, chapter 119, Florida Statutes, governing the public’s right to access records held by the agency. In support of the broad public right to access public records, [governmental entity] incorporates the following guidelines to inform agency staff about implementation of the Public Records Law within [governmental entity] and to provide uniformity within [governmental entity] in charging for access to public records.
Article I, section 24, Florida Constitution
Chapter 119, Florida Statutes
This document outlines policies, responsibilities, and describes procedures for providing access to public records. It should be applied to all activities which involve public records requests. These guidelines complement, but do not replace, the requirements under the Public Records Law.
The following policies are adopted:
a. Agency held records, except those specifically precluded from disclosure by a statutory exemption, shall be available, in any form and format used by the agency, to all citizens for inspection or copying under the supervision of the records custodian or designee during normal business hours.
b. The widest possible access to existing public records is encouraged by making copies of those records available for a fee not to exceed the actual cost of duplication, and, if the nature or volume of public records requested to be inspected, examined, or copied requires extensive use of agency resources, the minimal additional cost to cover such extensive use of agency resources.
c. Innovative practices to enhance the public’s right of access to public records shall be encouraged.
d. [Governmental entity] shall assure that future information technology resources used to manage, store, or maintain public records adequately provide for the rights of the requester to access public records under chapter 119, Florida Statutes.
a. Divisions, Districts, and Offices shall:
1. identify the public records for which they are custodians. When these public records are shared such that a single custodian cannot clearly be identified, the custodian most responsible for maintaining access to these public records shall have custodial responsibility; and
2. identify the types of public records and public record information under their custody that are exempt from inspection, examination, and copying under the Public Records Law.
d. Managers and supervisors shall:
1. be knowledgeable of the public access activities occurring within their responsible areas;
2. develop methods of calculating the extensive costs incurred when their information technology resources, clerical or supervisory staff, or both are extensively used to respond to public records requests unless such methods are already established by this directive;
3. ensure the actual cost of duplication and/or extensive use charges are applied to public records requests only when it is cost-effective to do so; and
4. provide adequate staff training in the requirements of the Public Records Law and the policies set forth in these guidelines, with particular attention to staff’s responsibility for maintaining the confidentiality of exempt information or records.
c. A cost-benefit analysis shall be conducted to determine whether the benefit of collecting fees for providing access to public records outweighs the cost to [government entity] of processing such fees. Records custodians and other providers of public records are responsible for collecting the actual cost of duplication fees and/or extensive use charges from the requester only when such fees/charges have been supported by the requisite cost/benefit analysis.
6. Public Records Requests
Providers should accept requests for public records in writing, by electronic mail, by telephone, by facsimile, or in person. If the request is insufficient to identify the records sought, the provider should help the requester clarify,’ the request. The provider may ask the requester to complete forms to assist in defining or documenting the facts necessary for completing records requests; however, the requester is not obligated to complete these forms as a condition for obtaining the public records requested. Requests for records should be accepted and records made accessible for inspection or duplication during [governmental entity]‘s normal business hours.
7. Public Records Fees and Charge
The Public Records Law allows government agencies to collect the actual cost of material and supplies used to duplicate public records for requesters. Agencies may also collect a reasonable service charge, in addition to actual cost fees, when a request for public records requires the extensive use of information technology resources and/or clerical or supervisory assistance. [Governmental entity] considers records requests taking more than [unit of time] to locate, copy, or otherwise make available the requested material as a diversion of resources that is susceptible to extensive use service charges. The following fee/charge standards and guidelines are designed to ensure that [governmental entity] is consistent in its application of rules which allow the recovery of actual and extensive use costs.
Actual Cost of Duplication
The custodian is responsible for determining the actual cost of duplication when public records requests are produced using a material other than those listed below.
- Paper Copies – Paper copies up to 8 1/2in x 14in size shall be provided at a cost of not more than 15 cents per one-sided copy and 20 cents for a double-sided copy, and for all other copies, upon payment of the actual cost of duplication of the record. The cost of providing a certified copy of a public record shall be no more than 1 dollar.
- Printer Paper – The charge for computer printer paper shall be no more than [actual cost] per printed page of a letter or legal size, and for all other paper sizes, the actual cost of duplication.
- Shipping – U.S. postage, commercial shipping carriers, or other costs incurred in the delivery of public records shall be included in the actual costs charged to the requester.
Extensive Use Charges
Extensive use charges shall not be randomly or automatically applied. Rather, each public records request must be evaluated to determine if extensive use charges are warranted. Extensive use charges shall be applied in conformity with the definition set forth on page 5 of these guidelines.
- Labor Time – When extensive clerical and/or supervisory labor time is spent in the inspection or production of a public records request, a service charge for labor should be applied by computing the actual cost of providing such labor. The Labor Costs Table at Attachment 1 [to be attached by a governmental agency] shall be used to determine applicable labor charges.
- Information Technology Resources – Providers shall use the documented fee/charge methods established by their division, district, or office when charging for the extensive use of information technology resources and a copy of such documented method shall be provided upon request. Service charges shall be based on the actual cost incurred for such extensive use.
- When all allowable fees/charges applicable to a particular public records request can be calculated in advance, they should be collected prior to the provider investing significant information technology resources and/or clerical or supervisory assistance.
- Where actual costs and extensive use fees cannot be immediately determined due to the nature of the request, the provider shall give an estimated cost for producing the records and inform the requester that the actual cost may vary, but will not exceed the original estimate by more than an additional 25%. Providers should ensure estimates are accurate within 25% of the actual cost. The requester accepts the cost estimate, and then the provider may fill the public records request. Once the records are ready, the provider shall notify the requester of the cost and furnish the public records upon receipt of payment.
- Should the requester fail to pay the actual costs and/or extensive use charges incurred to produce the request, the provider shall refer the non-payment to [appropriate financial office].
- No sales tax is to be charged for a public records request. 5.All checks should be made payable to [governmental entity]. [Appropriate routine for collecting and documenting cash and checks, and for invoicing requesters.]
Charges Waivers – Fees or charges may be waived between [governmental entity] and other government agencies, by agreement between management, when the recurring exchanges or data sharing between agencies negates the need to apply these fees.
8. Public Records Exemptions
The [governmental entity] is responsible for protecting information defined as confidential or as otherwise prohibited from public inspection or copying under the Public Records Law. All exemptions to the Public Records Law can be found in the Florida Statutes. A list of [governmental entity] records presently exempt from public inspection, examination, and copying is found in Attachment 2 [to be compiled and attached by governmental entity]. Any exemption in existence or hereafter enacted shall not be deemed waived or otherwise void or unenforceable simply because it is not included in this list. The Florida Statutes should be consulted for a more complete understanding of a particular exemption. The following standards and controls should be followed to prevent the inadvertent or unauthorized release of confidential and exempt information:
a. Confidential information shall be redacted (extracted) from records prior to public release or examination of the nonexempt portions.
b. Future data processing Systems that are expected to maintain or provide access to confidential or sensitive records shall be designed with redaction capabilities so that only nonexempt portions of records can be extracted and made available to a public records requester. Redaction capability shall be a component in the redesign of existing systems.
c. Providers are responsible for informing the requester when requests cannot be filled due to an exemption that prevents disclosure. Upon request, the provider must provide the basis for this exemption and its statutory citation.
For the purpose of this directive, the following terms are defined:
a. Confidential or Sensitive Records – Records which are presently provided by law to be confidential or which are prohibited from being inspected by the public by either general or special Jaw.
b. Extensive Use of Resources – When the nature or volume of the public records requested to be inspected, examined, or copied requires the use of [governmental entity] information technology resources and/or labor time required of clerical or supervisory employees exceeds [unit of time], the particular use of such resources is considered extensive.
c. Provider – The individual within [governmental entity], usually the custodian or designee of the public records, who makes public records available to a requester for inspection, examination, or copying.
d. Public Record – All documents, papers, letters, maps, books, tapes, photographs, films, sound recordings, or other material, regardless of physical form, characteristics, or means of transmission, made or received pursuant to law or ordinance or in connection with the transaction of official business by any agency.
e. Requester – A person, firm, association, joint venture, partnership, estate, corporation, or any other group or combination who has made a public record request to inspect, examine, copy, or receive copies of documents in the custody or control of the [governmental entity] pursuant to chapter 119, Florida Statutes.
Responsible Office: [appropriate office within governmental entity]