Submitting a Freedom of Information Act request to a public agency may seem daunting, but you shouldn't be intimidated by the process, an open records advocate said.
Megan Rhyne, executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, said most public records requests come from citizens, not from the journalists who are often much more savvy about the inner workings of governments.
This week is Sunshine Week, where newspapers across the country are promoting more public access to records and public meetings and a better understanding of how freedom of information works.
"There are no magic words that you have to say. Just put your request down in writing. Be prepared to have to pay for the records, although many times you won't have to," Rhyne said. Governments have five days to respond to your request.
Rhyne said the No. 1 problem she sees from residents is that they submit a request, receive a denial and then give up.
"It is often not the final answer. There are always opportunities to go back and negotiate your request," Rhyne said. "Think of the whole process as a conversation with the government rather than an adversarial role where they are automatically not going to release the information."
Rhyne said many times if people revised their requests, they can obtain the information they are looking for.
She said that another common problem is requesting information from agencies that are not public bodies, such as from a church or a nonprofit group.
Rhyne said being clear in the original request is key, so you don't end up with information that you are not seeking.
"You may think it's perfectly clear what you're asking, but it can be interpreted in a different way from the other side of the counter," Rhyne said.
Still, she said, there are many success stories from residents who have received important information by using Freedom of Information laws.
"There are tons of records released that are helpful, and make the people so well-informed," Rhyne said.
Here are a few online resources for making records requests.
Virginia Freedom of Information Advisory Council: Check out http://www.foiacouncil.dls.virginia.gov or call (804) 225-3056.
Virginia Coalition for Open Government: See http://www.opengovva.org or call (540) 353-8264.
Sunshine Week: To read about how Freedom of Information Act requests have made a difference across the country, check out http://www.sunshineweek.org.
Filing a FOIA
Virginia residents can ask governments to examine records or ask for copies in any medium used by the government, including emails. The government has five days to respond to requests.