Freedom of Information Laws
Truth is the most valuable thing we have. Let us economize it.
-- Mark Twain
You have the right under law to access information about how your government works. This is a little understood but very powerful tool for advocates.
First, check that the information is not already online. A lot of information is available on the web, particularly for the General Assembly. If it’s not online, most state employees know that you have a legal right to information and expect to comply with your request. On occasion however, advocates have had to invoke their right to information under the Freedom of Information law.
At the state level, this right is guaranteed by the Freedom of Information Act. Under the Act, you can obtain records and attend meetings of all public agencies, with minor and understandable exceptions for sensitive information. Public agencies include state and local government agencies, departments, boards, commissions, and even some private entities. This applies to executive, administrative, legislative, and judicial offices. You are entitled to receive a copy of the notice, agenda, minutes and vote record of a meeting. Most records and files of state and local agencies are available for inspection or copying. They can charge you a fee per page or file, but often don’t.
The FOI Act is enforced by the state Freedom of Information Commission. They are very helpful in navigating the process. If you have any questions or a request for information is being ignored, denied or delayed, contact them. You have 30 days after a denial to file a complaint with the Commission.
Usually, all that is needed is a call to someone at an agency and they will send you the documents. Some may ask you to put the request in writing; generally they will let you know what to include in the letter and where to send it. It is important to be reasonable. Broad requests can be burdensome for the agency and give you far more information than you want. Be as specific as possible; it is best if you can identify the exact documents you need.
If the agency is not being cooperative or takes too long, put your request in writing and mail it to the agency. You can call the Freedom of Information Commission for help in drafting the letter. Address your letter to the Commissioner of the agency or the highest-ranking person. You can send a copy to your legislators as well. State that you are requesting the information under the Freedom of Information Act. Some agencies have online portals that you can use to file a request, but they don’t tend to be user-friendly and it doesn’t speed anything up. You are not required to identify the purpose you are requesting the information for.
Then follow up. Call the agency, find the person responsible for requests, be sure they have your letter, and ask when you can expect the document. And keep calling until you get what you need. You will likely have to do this repeatedly. Make it your Monday morning thing to do. Be polite but be persistent.
Again, it is rare that requests for information become contentious. If you are polite and are creating respectful working relationships with policymakers, this may never come up. But remember, they are not doing you a favor – this is your right.