Making Public Records Requests During Budget Cuts

Budget cuts have impacted FOIA and open records response times.  Here are a few tips on making successful public records requests during budget cuts. In-Person Requests

Find out when the office is open. Before you plan your visit, you should call ahead for office hours.  Many offices are operating under reduced hours (i.e. 8 a.m. to 2 p.m.) and may be closed entirely on furlough days.  Also note that records desks may have different operating hours than other offices within the agency or department.

Be polite. Politeness goes a long way.  Many records offices have limited staff that is expected to manage long lines, answer phone calls, locate records and make copies.

Be specific.  When you go into the office, be prepared with as many details about your request as possible.  The records clerk will be better able to help you if you articulate exactly what you need.

Understand limitations.  Due to limited staffing, some offices restrict how many records you can request each day and have a limitation on copies that can be made while you are waiting.  If this is the case, you will have to fill out a request form for additional records or large copy jobs.  These requests are typically processed in the order that they are received, and can be reviewed or picked up when they are ready.  Also note that many offices still keep older records on microfilm.  Be prepared to use these machines yourself or to wait up to several weeks while the office staff uses them to fulfill your request.

Bring cash or a checkbook. Most offices do not take credit cards, and if they do there is often an expensive surcharge.  To avoid this, bring cash or personal checks to pay any fees associated with your requests.

Written Requests

Visit the web site for more information. Before you submit a written public records request, it is a good idea to visit the web site of the agency or department that you believe holds the records.  In some cases, the office will have a standard public records request form that you can print or submit online.

Direct your request to the appropriate person.  Many agencies and departments list a name and contact information for the person who oversees public records requests.  If not, it is a good idea to call the office to identify the best person to help you.  Establishing phone contact with this person lets them know that your request is coming, which could expedite the process.

Be specific. In a written request, include any details you have on the record such as its subject matter, the date it was created and the named parties.  Providing as much information as possible will greatly increase the likelihood that you will get the records you need.

Be patient and persistent. Generally, you should not expect to get an immediate response from an agency or department after you have submitted a request.  Keep in mind that most offices are managing a large backlog of requests, and in most cases, these offices have up to 20 days to send your records, deny your request or notify you of a time extension.  Once you have submitted your request, follow-up to make sure the request was received and then call consistently to check on progress.  Keep in mind, though, that persistence will pay right up until the point you are labeled a pest by the agency, and proceed accordingly.