Time should be on your side

By Shelley Kimball

Time. In the world of public records requests, this can be an obstacle both to the requester and the records custodian.

And this is not just an issue in the Commonwealth of Virginia.

I have been conducting research on the interactions between requesters and custodians for years. One constant complaint from records custodians is the requirement to respond to requests in a certain amount of time. A consistent response I get in in just about every study is that they don’t have enough time to respond to records requests plus complete the rest of their work duties.

However, that does not mean that the requests are then to be ignored. Many states have some sort of response time requirements built into their laws to insure that requesters are not ignored.

In Virginia, according to § 2.2-3704(B)(1-4) of the Virginia Freedom of Information Act, records custodians must do one of the following within five working days:

  • Provide the documents.
  • Explain in writing that none of the documents will be provided because there is an exemption in the law or the custodian is exercising his or her “discretion” to withhold. The denial should also explain what part of the law allows withholding the documents.
  • Explain that some of the documents will be released, and some of the documents will be withheld. Again, the responses should explain why the withheld documents will not be released. Keep in mind that if a particular document has something confidential in it, the custodian can redact (or darken out) that section while releasing the rest of the record. The rest of the record should be released.
  • Help the requester find the documents if they are in the wrong office, or explain that the documents just don’t exist. If the records being requested do not exist or can’t be found, then the requester should receive a response to that effect. If the records are at another office, the records custodian should provide contact information for that office.
  • Describe the reason a request cannot be filled within the five days required. Perhaps the request is too large or the records aren’t immediately available. The requester should be notified within five days, and then the office gets another seven working days to respond.

Sometimes, a request might be so voluminous that the office cant respond in five working days, or even in the additional seven more working days. If this is the case, then the office should first try to work it out with the requester. If no agreement can be made, then the office should petition the court for more time, according to § 2.2-3704(C).

So what can requesters do to try to expedite their requests? Records custodians have advised:

See if the information is available online. Across the country, more offices are uploading public records. That will often be a faster, cheaper way to get the information.

Make sure you are asking the right office. Call ahead or look online to see if that office has what you need. If not, you may be waiting five days to be told to go elsewhere, and that’s frustrating.

Be as specific as you comfortable can with your request. In Virginia, it is required that your request be made with “reasonable specificity.” It is also permissible for custodians to ask for your identifying information (which is not true in all states).  I know from personal experience that it can become more intimidating to request information when they have your name and address.

Don’t ask for more documents than you need. Sometimes you really do need that large request. Don’t let that stop you – just know that it will add some time to the process.

And my advice? Don’t give up. Don’t let the time constraints get in the way of what you need. Keep asking, and use the law to your advantage. 

 

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Shelley Kimball, Ph.D., is a professorial lecturer of media law at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C. and the University of Florida. She studies the interaction between records requester and access professional and finds ways to make it less adversarial. She is the editor of this column, and she accepts submissions at Kimball@gwu.edu.

 

 

Truth in the Field is a series of columns intended to encourage citizens' use of open government provisions. Contributors’ opinions are their own. 

 

 

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