Process to Make a Request
A Right to Know Law request should be submitted in writing in one of four ways:
- S. Mail
- In Person
Requests also can be made verbally, but making requests in writing is strongly recommended. The reason for this recommendation is simple: if the request is denied, you must include a copy of your request to file an appeal. Consequently, if an agency denies a verbal request, the requester cannot file an appeal.
Requests generally should be made using the Office of Open Records’ standard request form. This form can aid citizens in submitting clear and concise requests, and all agencies must accept requests submitted using this form. Some agencies provide their own request forms. Using an agency-specific form is acceptable, but those agencies also are required to accept the standard form.
Requests should be directed to the agency’s Open Records Officer. The name of the Open Records Officer generally can be found on an agency’s website. If you cannot find the name on the agency’s website, call the agency and ask for the person’s name.
- Agencies may charge for simple copying fees. The standard fee for copying set by the Office of Open Records is twenty-five cents per page. Agencies cannot charge a higher fee for copying.
- An agency may require you to pay for copies before any records are disclosed if copying the documents you requested will cost more than $100. Please note: if you do not want to pay more than an amount less than this, let the agency know up front or ask them to contact you if it will be more than a certain amount.
- If you request documents to be provided in electronic form, agencies might charge fees for copying the documents electronically (for example, the cost of putting documents onto a DVD).
- Agencies may not charge you for the time its employees spend preparing your requested records or for a legal review by its attorney.
- Agencies may charge for the postage needed to send you the records you request.
- Agencies also may charge fees for complex and extensive data sets.
- Agencies can charge a certification fee but only if you request certified copies (most RTKL forms ask this on the form so check ‘no’).
- You can request that the agency waive its fees. Agencies can waive fees if requesters make their own copies or if they deem the requests to be in the public interest. Agencies, however, are not required to waive fees.
What Happens Once You Submit Your Request?
The agency has five business days to respond once its Open Records Officer receives your request. A business day is any day in which the offices of the agency are open, and does not include weekends or holidays. Remember – this “clock” starts running only once the agency’s Open Records Officer receives the request, so it is very important to direct your request to the Open Records Officer.
Within those five business days, the agency can respond in one of four ways:
- Disclose all of the records you requested;
- Disclose some of the records you requested, and deny access to others;
- Deny access to all records you requested; or
- Invoke an extension of 30 calendar days, after which the agency must respond in one of the three ways above.
If the agency does not respond within five-business days, the request is “deemed denied,” and you can begin the appeals process as if the agency actually denied your request.
An agency may produce records in “redacted” form. In other words, if some information may be withheld from a document because it is exempt from disclosure under the law, the agency may produce the document with the exempt information removed or blacked out.
Note on the 30 calendar day extension: An agency may invoke a 30-day extension if (1) the records are stored off-site; (2) the agency faces staffing limitations; (3) the request needs to be reviewed by the agency’s lawyer to assess whether the requested records are accessible under the RTKL; (4) the request seeks records that must be redacted; (5) the request’s “extent or nature” is particularly complex and cannot be fulfilled within 5 business days; (6) the requester did not pay any required fees; or (7) the requester failed to follow agency policy. It has become a common practice for agencies to invoke the extension, particularly in the case of a larger, more difficult request.
Note on Denial: In denying a request, an agency may simply cite to provisions of the law that exempt the requested records from disclosure or justify denying the request. The agency does not need to explain why the exemption applies to your request. (For an example, see Saunders v. OOC.)
Tips and Pointers
- Make sure that your request for records is specific and concise. Identify the records you want as specifically as possible so that an agency can quickly locate them and determine whether they are public records. The courts have rejected appeals where requests are not “sufficiently specific.”
- The Courts have held that a request should identify a clearly-defined universe of documents. For example, if possible, you should provide names of agency employees, email addresses, search terms, agency departments, document titles, or dates to make your request as clear as possible. Courts have ruled that requests that start with language such as “all correspondence concerning” are typically overbroad and, therefore, insufficiently specific. But, the fact that a request is large in its scope does not make it overbroad.
- The law allows people to request records, not information. So, make sure your request seeks records. Under the RTKL, an agency is not required to create a record that does not exist or to answer questions seeking information. For example, request a budget instead of a dollar figure, or a contract instead of the name of the third-party contractor.
- Retain a copy of your request. If the request is denied and you choose to appeal, you will need a copy of the request.
- To avoid fees, request that the records be disclosed in electronic form. In addition, the OOR states that “if a record is only maintained electronically or in other non-paper media, duplication fees shall be limited to the lesser of the fee for duplication on paper or the fee for duplication in the original media unless the requester specifically requests for the record to be duplicated in the more expensive medium.”
- To ensure a swift response, submit your request to the agency’s Open Records Officer. As noted above, the Open Records Officer may be found on the websites of many agencies.
- In making your request, work cooperatively with the agency in making your request, ask questions of the agency, and be friendly. On many occasions, a simple phone call up front can avoid hassles and aggravations later.