Sunshine Week tips: 6 public records to request when reporting on local government

Miranda Spivack is a veteran investigative reporter and editor.

It is Sunshine Week, an annual celebration of access to public information launched by the News Leaders Association in 2005. To commemorate the occasion, we’ve asked journalists across different beats to share their advice for requesting open records and responding when facing roadblocks to access.  

Today, we have tips from Miranda Spivack, a veteran reporter and editor who specializes in stories about government accountability and secrecy, urban development, and immigration.

What are examples of public records that reporters should ask for when covering local government?

Spivack: Executive and council member calendars — who are they meeting with, and why? Crosscheck that with campaign finance reports and outside contracts.

Outside contracts — who are the vendors and what relationships, if any, do they have to local lawmakers, staff, etc. What is the government outsourcing, and why?

Salaries of elected officials and staff; salaries for local government staff.

If you notice council members or others on a board or panel texting during a public meeting, ask for the text messages and/or emails. And always ask for those when you are making a records request for a specific issue.

A list of any non-disclosure agreements government officials and elected officials may have signed — and ask why.

Campaign finance reports.

What are your top tips for reviewing a large number of files on a tight deadline?

Spivack: Line up colleagues in advance to help you; make a list of what you and they should be searching for; and figure out ahead of time the keywords you need to use.

What is your process when a public records request is denied?

Spivack: Before you file a request, make sure you know what the appeals process is. In some places, you have to go to court. In any case, make sure they cited a legal exemption/reason for turning you down. If you can ask for reconsideration, do so. If there is an administrative internal appeal process, try that. Ask if you can narrow your request and if they can offer any suggestions. 

And, if all that fails: Get a lawyer. Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and the local branch of the American Civil Liberties Union may be able to help you. So may your state’s press association.

Share your FOIA and open records successes — or how you’ve worked around roadblocks — with The Latest subscribers. We’d love to feature your tips in our newsletter. 

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