Weatherford Democrat

Columns

August 9, 2011

The logistics of public records

WEATHERFORD — After attending a Freedom of Information seminar on Thursday of last week, I’ve decided to dedicated my columns this week to ways that ordinary people can research public records.

Today, I’ll highlight some of the basics about public records.

Public records are pretty much anything you can think of that a government entity pays to produce, because they are using your tax dollars to produce that record.

So, for example, correspondence done via email between the city manager and his staff could be a public record. Why not? Tax dollars paid for the computer, the equipment, their Internet connection and their salaries. Some things may not be public —for example, employee personnel files — but other things are. For example, employee salaries, expense reports detailed budgets from the government entity and lists of the names and titles of all those employed by the government entity.

The number one question I get is, “Why publish public salaries?”

At the last paper I was at, we published all the postal employee salaries. We received death threats. We also received multiple lawsuit threats, even though these records are public and no real court challenge could be made.

Yes. This is a sensitive area: what people earn. But, it keeps public officials in check if we know how much they make. And, it keeps residents informed.

Someone once told me, “Well, why don’t you just check the records and not publish the salaries if they seem in line with what the private sector might make,” but my reply is, “Who am I to judge if the salaries are correct? That’s the job of the people.”

And, most people never find the time to check these records themselves. So, one of the main jobs of the media is to bring them to light.

If you decide to go after a public record yourself, you should know a few basics:

1. The government entity does not have to the right to know why you want the record. They may ask you anyway. This is an area where common sense comes into play. Maybe they are asking you in order to help narrow your search. If you go up and request all the emails the city manager has sent, that could be virtually thousands and take weeks, plus a ton of expense. So, maybe they just want to help you narrow down the date or subject matter. However, if you feel it’s being done as harassment, then you may have to file an official request.

2. Asking for public record can be done just by walking up and asking. However, the government entity may require that you do an official written request — or if you’re having trouble, your best option is to put the request in writing. There are tips on how to ask for information and how to write a letter on the Attorney General’s website, www.oag.state.tx.us. You can also get help from the Attorney General’s office at their toll-free hotline, 877-673-6839.

3. They can charge you. State law’s general rule about this is that they can charge you 10 cents a page (a double-sided single sheet counts as two pages). However, that can differ, depending on the record.

Tomorrow, I’ll go over the true expense of obtaining public records.

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