Access Across America tour stops for VCOG
What kind of records are there out there, and what can I learn from them? What do I do when estimated fees are too high? What if my request for records is denied? Should my request letter be sweet, salty, or downright bitter?
These were but some of the questions tackled by University of Arizona professor, and open records training professional, David Cuillier of the Society for Professional Journalists, in a two-hour workshop sponsored by the Virginia Coalition for Open Government.
More than 40 people gave up a sunny Saturday afternoon in May to learn about sunshine throughout the year. The VCOG presentation, held at the Virginia Press Association’s headquarters in Glen Allen, was Cuillier’s only stop in Virginia during a months-long national tour to preach the gospel of public records.
Cuillier was also promoting a book he co-authored with the National FOI Coalition’s former director Charles Davis called “The Art of Access.”
Cuillier demonstrated how public records can be used in any citizen’s day-to-day life, whether it’s gathering background on a date met online, looking at local comprehensive plans to see what changes might be coming to the area where you want to buy a house, or whether it’s “simply” holding one’s government accountable.
Cuillier related the results of research he performed to gauge whether the tone of a letter requesting records had any effect on the rate of compliance. Cuillier sent a nice letter, a neutral letter and an aggressive letter to randomly selected law enforcement agencies and then school districts in Arizona. What he found was that in both cases, the more aggressive requests tended to result in greater compliance and quicker response times.
He also suggested not necessarily taking no for an answer if denied records. On the one hand, a requester may be given a incorrect response (e.g., “an exemption says we have to keep it secret.”), on the other hand, a government employee filling the request may be fearful of getting in trouble if he or she fills the request improperly.
Cuillier reminded attendees that people skills are a must, as they help requesters gain access to records through trust and persuasion, rather than through bullying and inflexibility.
VCOG recorded the entire presentation, posting it on the Coalition’s YouTube channel -- VaCo4OpGo -- in 13 parts.