Mar 17, 2023 - News

Maximizing public records requests for Sunshine Week

Illustration of a sun with rays made from an open book

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

Never mind those cloudy skies. It's Sunshine Week, the annual, nationwide celebration of accessing public information to promote an open government.

Why it matters: Governmental bodies like city councils, police departments and school districts are your tax dollars at work.

  • State and federal public records requirements, known as "sunshine laws," help keep these powerful institutions accountable.

What's happening: Requesting public documents is key to investigative journalism, but you don't need to be a reporter to access them. Anybody can do it!

  • Some tips on how to be an Ohio records pro:

🕵️ Know what you're looking for: Anything that documents government activity on a "fixed medium" — either physical or digital — is public record.

  • Examples include: meeting recordings, receipts, disciplinary notices, police reports and emails to and from public officials — even if it's a personal email address used to discuss public business.

👍 Be smart: Determine who keeps an office's records, such as a city clerk or school lawyer.

  • Some agencies, like the Columbus Division of Police, have online request forms, but in other cases, you may need to ask where to submit a request.
  • Verbal requests are allowed, but written emails or forms help with making paper trails.
  • Governments can charge fees for physical copies of records, but you can ask to visit and review them for free. You don't even need to have a reason for your requests.

✍️ Be descriptive: This prevents getting rejected for being "overly broad."

  • A good example: "I am requesting digital copies of Mayor John Doe's emails sent between March 1-15, 2023, regarding his re-election campaign."

⏰ Be persistent: Ohio law requires producing records in a "reasonable amount of time" — but that's, unfortunately, open to interpretation.

  • Follow up often if you haven't heard back.
  • Initially, we suggest asking recipients to confirm receipt of your request.

Pro tip: If your request is denied or you suspect records are being withheld illegally, you can file a complaint in the Ohio Court of Claims for $25.

ğŸ”Ž Go deeper: Check out the Ohio attorney general's 2023 Sunshine Manual.

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