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How to file an open records request

Georgia recently updated its Open Records and Open Meetings Laws. Before filing a request, you should take a moment to familiarize yourself with the changes.

Georgia’s Open Meeting and Records Laws.final

DECATURISH.COM’S ADVICE ON FILING A RECORDS REQUEST

1) Ask first. You should always make sure the record you’re seeking isn’t already available. Records like budgets, minutes and city ordinances are usually available online. Some records, like meeting minutes, should be readily available and turned over to you for inspection during regular business hours. Sometimes, public officials see records requests as a confrontational gesture. If you ask for something, you might just get it without the hassle and potential costs of filing a formal request. But if you need to file a request, then read on …

2) Know the law. Are you filing a request with the federal government? Then you’ll need to file it under the Freedom of Information Act. If you’re filing it with the state, you’ll need to file it under the Georgia Open Records Act. If an agency wants to delay a record, they can claim they are under the jurisdiction of the state law and not the federal law if you file a FOIA. Be sure you know what kind of records request you’re making before you file it. Also, each agency usually has a designated records custodian. In most cases, that will be the city or county clerk, but not always. Make sure you find out who the records custodian is and direct your request to that person.

3) Be specific. It helps if you provide as many details as possible about the records you are looking for. If you can’t prove that it exists, it’s easy for a a government official to claim it does not exist. If it doesn’t exist, then the government isn’t required to provide it. So, for example, if you know the date of an email, its sender, its recipient and the subject, you have a better shot at getting it than if you file a blanket request for all emails sent to and from individual accounts. Sometimes you don’t have all the details. But try to provide as many as you can. A request that’s too broad can result in significant charges to produce records. Remember: A government is not required to create a record that doesn’t already exist. It’s better to know what kind of record will contain the information you’re looking for. The Georgia Archives has a comprehensive list of records retention schedules for different government agencies. It will give you information about what records governments are required to keep and for how long.

For more info, visit: http://www.georgiaarchives.org/records/retention_schedules

4) Follow up. State law requires a response to your records request within three business days. When you make a request, make a note on your calendar to call back on Day 4 if you haven’t heard anything about your request at the close of business on Day 3. A response does not necessarily mean the records will be ready that day. The government agency is required to give you an estimate for how much the record will cost and tell you when you can retrieve it. Depending on the request, retrieval may take several days.

5) Keep your costs low. If the information you’re asking for is something that requires a lot of redacting or will be difficult to retrieve, you may face costs in excess of $100. Here are a couple of suggestions.

Be precise. As I said earlier, you want to narrow down your request as much as possible to avoid paying for things you didn’t ask for or that are redundant.

Ask to inspect. Copying costs can add up. Always ask to inspect the records first and copy only the ones you need. A way to get around copying costs is to take pictures of the records with your cell phone. That’s legal under the state Open Records Law.

– Negotiate. If you receive an exorbitant quote for your request, ask the custodian how you might be able to lower your costs. They may be willing to help you find ways to reduce the expense of search and retrieval. Remember: an estimate is what they think it will cost them. If you suggest ways to make retrieval and compliance easier for them, they might be willing to listen.

6) Be persistent. Sometimes the squeaky wheel gets the grease. If the government hasn’t given you a response in three days, or won’t return your messages, remind them that the law requires a response. The government can’t ignore your requests and can’t deny them arbitrarily. But if being persistent doesn’t get you anywhere, it may be time to take it to the next level.

7) If all else fails, call the Attorney General’s Office. The Georgia Attorney General’s office has established an Open Government Mediation Program to assist residents and governments with the Open Records law. If you can’t get a satisfactory response to your records requests, you should notify the AG’s office about the issue. The main contact is Stefan Ritter, 404 – 656 – 7298 or sritter@law.ga.gov. Keep in mind that a local government can use any number of legal loopholes to technically be in compliance with a request while not giving you the information you seek. The AG’s office will only intervene in instances where there is good legal standing to do so.

HOW TO REQUEST RECORDS

Each government entity in our area handles records requests a little differently. Most of them have created pages on their websites outlining their procedures.

Decatur

Decatur provides two kinds of request forms: One for police department records and one for records not related to the police department. The city’s records custodian is City Manager Peggy Merriss. The Police Department’s records custodian is Deputy Chief Keith Lee.

The city’s website also provides this fee schedule:

Retrieval fees

To download the records request forms for the city of Decatur, click here.

As for the city schools of Decatur, I’ve never been able to find a records request form on their website or who the appropriate records custodian for the school system is. To CSD’s credit, they provide most of the information I’m asking for without making me file a formal request. On the rare occasion where I’ve had to file a request, I modified the non-police department form on the city’s website.

I’ve always made my requests to school system spokesperson Courtney Burnett. She can be reached via email at cburnett@csdecatur.net

Also, there’s a plethora of data online about local school systems. Most of it can be found via the Georgia Department of Education’s website. http://www.gadoe.org/Pages/Home.aspx

Avondale Estates

The records custodian for Avondale is City Clerk Juliette Sims-Owens. She can be reached by sending an email to avondalecityclerk@avondaleestates.org

Records for the police department and the city can be requested through the city clerk’s office. To download the city’s records request form, click here.

Atlanta 

The thing to remember about Atlanta is it’s a big government, and as such requests are handled at the departmental level. I’m going to list the contact info or website for individual departments, but I’m sure I’m missing a few. If you know of records contacts in Atlanta I should add, email me at editor@decaturish.com

– Office of buildings: 

Wanda McMullen

404-330-6163

wmcmullen@atlantaga.gov

– Finance

To submit a Georgia Open Records Request, you may send an email to DOFBO@atlantaga.gov or call (404) 330.6430.

– Watershed management

Open Records Officer

404-546-3200

– Procurement

http://www.atlantaga.gov/index.aspx?page=853

– Atlanta Police Department

Atlanta Police Department / Open Records

226 Peachtree St SW

Atlanta , Ga 30303

Office: 404-546-7448

Fax: 404-546-8200

Email: APDOpenRecords@AtlantaGa.Gov

Also, check out this handy FAQ from APD. http://www.atlantapd.org/openrecordsrequest.aspx

– Atlanta Public Schools

While APS is a distinct entity from Atlanta, it’s included in this section for convenience.

Kent Purnell-Johnson

Constituent Services – Open Records Specialist

openrecords@atlanta.k12.ga.us

Fax: 404-802-1807

Office: 404-802-2811

130 Trinity Ave, SW

Atlanta, GA 30303

DeKalb County

Like Atlanta, DeKalb County handles requests by department.

– DeKalb County Police

Open Records line: 770-724-7474

Central records office: http://web.co.dekalb.ga.us/dk_police/pol-crd.html

– DeKalb County Fire Rescue

From DeKalb.ga.us: “Hazardous spills, storage tanks, environmental issues should be submitted to the State Fire Marshal’s Office at (404) 656-0697 Hazmat Section. Fire Code Violations should be submitted to DeKalb County Fire Marshal’s Office on company letterhead stating Open Records Act Request emailed to Karen Williams at kwilliams@dekalbcountyga.gov”

– Judicial records

http://www.ojs.dekalbga.org/

Property tax records 

http://taxcommissioner.dekalbcountyga.gov/PropertyAppraisal/realSearch.asp

– Purchasing 

http://www.dekalbcountyga.gov/purchasing/pdf/open_recs_request_instructions.pdf

http://www.dekalbcountyga.gov/purchasing/pdf/open_recs_request_form.pdf

– DeKalb County Commission 

Contact the Clerk’s Office at 404-371-2162 or send an email to Clerk_Off@dekalbcountyga.gov.

– DeKalb County Schools

Note that, like Atlanta Public Schools, DeKalb County Schools is a separate entity from DeKalb County government. This information is included here for convenience.

Open Records Officer: openrecords@fc.dekalb.k12.ga.us

1701 Mountain Industrial Boulevard

Stone Mountain, GA 30083

http://www.dekalb.k12.ga.us/legal-affairs/index/open-records-requests

SAMPLE RECORDS REQUEST LETTER

In all cases it’s better to go with the forms provided by the government agency, but not all agencies provide them. Here’s a generic letter request form published by the National Freedom of Information Coalition:

[Your Name]

[Street Address]

[City, ST ZIP Code]

[Date]

[Name of Custodian of Records]

[Title]

[Company Name]

[Street Address]

[City, ST ZIP Code]

Dear [custodian of records]:

Under the Georgia Open Records Act § 50.18.70 et seq., I am requesting an opportunity to inspect or obtain copies of public records that [Describe the records or information sought with enough detail for the public agency to respond.  Be as specific as your knowledge of the available records will allow. But it is more important to describe the information you are seeking.]

If there are any fees for searching or copying these records, please inform me if the cost will exceed $______.  However, I would also like to request a waiver of all fees in that the disclosure of the requested information is in the public interest and will contribute significantly to the public’s understanding of ___________ [Here, you can identify yourself as a representative of the news media if applicable and state that your request is related to news gathering purposes.]  This information is not being sought for commercial purposes.

The Georgia Open Records Act requires a response time within three business days.  If access to the records I am requesting will take longer than three days, please contact me with information about when I might expect copies or the ability to inspect the requested records.

If you deny any or all of this request, please cite each specific exemption you feel justifies the refusal to release the information and notify me of the appeal procedures available to me under the law.

Thank you for considering my request.

Sincerely,

[Your Name]

[Your Phone number]

FOIA

The United States government provides this website that contains detailed information about how to request public information from different federal agencies:

http://www.foia.gov/

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