I hate being so sincere in print, but I really love journalism. Truly, I’m passionate about my job. One of the things I enjoy so much about it is the idea that people should know about the things that belong to them — things held by the government but paid for by the people.
Among these are a wide variety of government documents — emails, audio recordings, inspection reports — that all belong to you. Your tax dollars paid for whatever thing had to happen for that record to be created, and then most likely they paid for the staff time it took to create it.
Basically, there are a lot of documents you are empowered by law to ask for. But different agencies have different approaches to fulfilling the law, and it can be helpful to know the process before diving into a potentially expensive request.
I do this a lot, so I thought maybe a walk-through would be helpful. This week, I’m going to focus on requesting records from just one agency: the city of Casper.
I request records from the city for my job, but I thought it would still be good to get an expert’s opinion on how to craft the most efficient records request.
So I called City Clerk Fleur Tremel, who handles the requests received by the city, to walk me through her process.
Before you even get to the point of writing the request, Tremel suggests giving her office a call and discussing what exactly you’re looking for.
“We want you to get what you want,” Tremel said, but “sometimes people don’t really want to tell us what they’re after.”
She wants to dissuade some of that wariness. If she knows exactly what document someone is trying to get, or what information they want, it will be easier for her and faster and cheaper for the requester in the long run. This step is optional, but it will help move things along.
Tremel also suggests checking if the document is already published on the city’s website. Meeting minutes and agendas, requests for proposals, open bids and a handful of other items are already accessible online at casperwy.gov.
If you find you need to make an actual request, you will have to submit something in writing. Requests can be made by email, a signed written document or a form letter provided by the city.
When you write the request, be as specific as you can. If you followed Tremel’s advice and called her first, this step should be easy. If you didn’t, you should still aim for specificity in your request.
The records clerk is not going to be able to help you if they don’t understand what you want.
If you’re asking for emails, for example, set a time frame and use a handful of keywords to narrow the search.
When you submit your request, send it to the clerk’s office, rather than the specific department that might hold the records. Tremel will be forwarded the request anyway, she said. This excludes the police department, which handles its own records.
Once she receives a request, Tremel or another clerk will go through it, make sure they have the necessary information, and then either fill it themselves or send it to the appropriate department.
“We try within five days to get something back to the person,” even if that’s just an acknowledgement they received the request or an estimate for what it will cost.
State statute does dictate a timeline for these responses. If an agency doesn’t have the document you asked for, or if it’s not accessible, they have to let you know within seven days. If they do have it, they have to fulfill the request within 30 days.
This is where narrowing your search will help you. A broad search is going to take longer to fill.
Finally, your records might cost something. The price is determined by the time it takes to fulfill the request. The first hour is free, and most requests fall into this category. But if you have an expansive request, you’ll be paying for every hour of staff time after the first. And accepting digital versions of the records will save you the cost of copies.
For what it’s worth, I think Casper’s public information process is pretty straightforward.
Sure, it’s not always easy, and in fact often quite difficult, to get public records from government institutions. I’ve gotten requests returned with entire pages redacted. Most reporters I know have similar stories. The Star-Tribune recently won a lawsuit against the University of Wyoming for denying us public records.
But I really haven’t encountered anything like that on the local beat. So, please, ask for the records. They belong to you.
Follow local government reporter Morgan Hughes on Twitter @morganhwrites
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