Public Records audit
Doane Student Sunshine Audit Training Guide
1. Be assigned a record
Before you start, your professor will assign you a specific record to try to obtain.
Here are the records we will be asking for:
1. The visiting team report, final action and any follow-up reports dealing with Doane College’s latest accreditation report.
2. The college’s most recent IRS 990 form.
3. The most recent building and fire inspection reports of Doane dormitories.
4. The most recent Doane College cafeteria inspection conducted by the State Health Department.
5. Property owned by Doane College and its assessed value.
6. Gifts from overseas that the college must report to the U.S. Department of Education.
7. Doane College’s police blotter, incident or offense reports.
8. The latest federal or state audit of a Doane college grant.
9. Previous day’s incident reports, police blotter or offense reports from the Crete Police Department.
10. Salaries for the top five Crete city government wage earners.
11. Saline County sheriff jail log for the previous day.
2. Learn who holds your record
• Check your city, county or college Web site to find out the name of the department director and the address where that person’s office is located. You will not find out from the Web site which person in the office handles public records requests, but you will find out to whom you need to address your written letter requesting the record.
3. Write your open records request before you go.
• Although you will first ask to simply view the record, you will want to have a copy made of the record and you may be asked to submit that request in writing. So you will need to have your written request ready to avoid delaying your request.
• Address it to the director of the department which holds your record. Write in your record. Be sure to add your phone number and e-mail address at the bottom of the letter, and then sign it with your name and your home address.
• Make two copies of the letter – one for you to turn in with your records to your professor and one for you to give to the records-holder.
4. Prepare for your visit.
• Dress professionally. Don’t dress sloppily or casually. Wear nice clothes, though you don’t need to dress up in suits.
• Make sure you know where you are going. Do a Mapquest search if need be.
• Be sure you have plenty of time.
• Before you enter the building, write in your notebook the time, the date and the location of your visit. Leave your notebook in the car – don’t take it with you or produce it while you’re making your request. You need to keep your notes in your head. When you get back to the car, before you drive off, write in your notebook exactly what happened. Who did you talk to, what did they say and how long did the visit take. Record everything before you leave. This is VERY important.
5. Your visit.
• Be polite, be diligent, and be persistent. DO NOT be belligerent, sarcastic, overbearing or angry. You are playing the role of citizen requester, so act like one.
• Remember, at all times, that the goal is a FAIR assessment of compliance with the public records law.
• Don’t come in wearing an “I’m a journalist” T-shirt or carrying a reporter’s notebook. You don’t want to let them know you are a journalism student and, in fact, you’d rather they didn’t know you were a student at all, so don’t go in wearing a school sweatshirt.
6. Identify or not to identify.
• You aren’t required to identify yourself by name, or occupation. Records custodians should not ask for identification or seek the purpose or reason for your request. If the issue arises, though, try this approach:
STEP 1. If asked for identity or purpose, answer “Do you have to know that before you can help me?”
STEP 2. If the answer to that query is YES, then answer: “I don’t believe that is required by the open records law.”
STEP 3. Then step back and mentally record everything that happens.
STEP 4. If the official will not relent, and continues to demand identification or purpose, NEVER, EVER LIE.
STEP 5. If asked where you work, answer by returning to STEP 1: “Do you have to know that before you can help me?” (Again, make sure you are noting all of this…)
STEP 6. If the custodian insists, tell him/her that you are a student and if asked why you want the records, tell them that you are working on a class assignment. (Don’t tell them that you are working on an FOI AUDIT!)
• If clerks give you the old “that person isn’t here right now” response: ask whether certain people need to be in the office for you to release public information. Remember to note this response when you get back to the car. Then set a time to come back, and follow up.
• If you get the “we’re swamped, come back later” response: again, set a time, record the fact that your request was delayed, then come back at the appointed hour and try again.
• Don’t spout off about the law. You are a citizen, remember? You can say, “I’m pretty sure that the law says that this is a public record.”
• If you have to fill out a form, provide only your name, home address and home phone number.
7. Ask to see the records, and then ask for a copy.
• First, though, you want to ask to see the records. Say “I have a public records request. Who handles public records requests for the office? May I speak to him or her?” When you have the correct person in front of you, then ask for the record you have been assigned.
• If they say it will take time to find the records, ask the custodian whether he/she could find the records and make a copy for you.
• If they say, “wait right here” and then go get your record, you should look at the record to make sure it is the record you have requested. Ask for a copy of the record.
• If the custodian tells you it will cost you money to search for the records and make copies, tell him/her you understand and ask him/her to let you know exactly how much it will cost before you incur the expense. Then give him/her your phone number or your e-mail address so he/she can contact you.
• At this point, the custodian may say that he/she needs the request in writing. If so, whip out the letter you’ve prepared in advance. If, as you are leaving, the custodian has not asked for the request in writing, don’t give him/her the letter. Don’t just walk in and hand them the written request.
8. Getting the record
• You should be able to get a record within four business days. If the officials say they earnestly cannot get the record for you today, ask them what time you can return.
• A record is deemed “denied” if officials can’t produce it within four days. We still want to know, though, whether they can provide the record six or seven days later.
• Be sure to get the name and title of the person you talk to about getting the record. Ask him/her for a business card. If he/she resists, note that in the narrative part of the survey.
• When you leave the office, remember to write down the names, titles and direct quotes first. Then write down everything else you can think of, including how long you were in there.
• You will probably have to go back to the office to pick up your record. Chances are, you’ll be going back four days after you’ve made your request, although your records custodian may be able to get the material together and contact you sooner than that.
• Again, don’t take your notebook into the office with you, but once you’ve got the records, record in it exactly what happened. Be sure to immediately open the envelope and make sure you have received the correct record.
9. Paying for the record.
• Nebraska law allows the custodian to charge you for the reasonably calculated actual cost of photocopies, computer run time and materials.
• The custodian should give you a good-faith estimate of how much it will cost to retrieve the records before the cost is incurred, especially if it is more than $50.
• None of these records should cost much. If you get a bill for more than $3, submit a copy of your receipt to your professor.
• Don’t argue over the cost, but note how much you were charged.
• If the custodian says your requested records will cost more than $10, politely decline to accept the record, and tell him/her you will not need a copy. If it costs more than $10, ask how many pages were involved or what the bulk of the cost entailed. You’ll want to report the requested fee and the breakdown of search fees vs. copying fees in your narrative.
• Be sure to get a receipt for how much you pay, even if it is less than a dollar. Turn in the receipt with your records when you complete the assignment.
10. Report your findings.
• As soon as possible, file a report.
• You can actually fill out the form partially after your first visit and then go back and edit it after you’ve gotten the records. Or, if you’ve got really good notes, you can wait until you’ve gotten the records and then go fill out the form all at once. If you fill it out partially, mark the survey as incomplete. When you are finished with it, change the survey to “complete.”
• Give us everything you’ve got in your notebook in the narrative field. We want anecdotes, general impressions and results of the experience.
11. Keep your copies.
• Keep copies of the public records and your notes, print out your completed form and turn all of that in to your professor in a big manila envelope. (You can also e-mail the completed form to yourself.).
12. If you get threatened in any way for simply making a public records request, remember everything that happens and take good notes as soon as you are able.
13. When you are finished with your class project, we will analyze it and tell people about it. We’ll report it in the Owl and on The Doaneline, and talk about it on the KDNE and DCTV.
Sample open records act letter
OPEN RECORDS ACT REQUEST
[DATE GOES HERE]
[AGENCY CONTACT PERSON]
[AGENCY STREET ADDRESS]
To Whom It May Concern:
This is a public record request for a duplicate copy of [SPECIFY DOCUMENTS BY NAME OR DESCRIPTION], with the exception of those portions specifically exempted by Nebraska law.
As you know, the Nebraska Open Records Law states reasonable charges may be assessed, though the fee “shall not exceed the actual cost of making copies available.” The cost of making the copies available, the law states, “shall not exceed the amount of the reasonably calculated actual cost of the photocopies,” which for printouts of computerized data would include “the reasonably calculated actual cost of computer run time and the cost of materials for making the copy.” For electronic data, the actual cost of making the copies available “shall include the reasonably calculated actual cost of the computer run time, any necessary analysis and programming and the production of the report in the form furnished to the requester.” The law also states that if the estimate of the cost is more than $50, “the custodian may require the requester to furnish a deposit” before fulfilling the request.
I am prepared to pay reasonable search and retrieval fees if necessary. In cases where a record is partially private and partially public, the law provides that the public body is required to furnish the public portion after deletion of the confidential portion.
The presumption pertaining to any governmental record is that it is a public record, and under Nebraska laws, the individual agency denying a request is required either to furnish the record or to show the valid reason why it is not permitting examination of the record.
If my request is denied in whole or in part, the law requires your agency to provide in writing the following information:
• A description of the contents of the records withheld and a statement of the specific reasons for the denial, correlating specific portions of the records to specific reasons for the denial, including citations to the particular statute;
• The name of the public official or employee responsible for the decision to deny the request;
• Notification to the requester of any administrative or judicial right of review.
Also, the law states that any official who fails to provide the requested public document within four days, unless extenuating circumstances exist, “shall be subject to removal or impeachment and in addition shall be deemed guilt of a Class III misdemeanor.
Therefore, I will expect your agency to produce the requested records “as soon as is practicable and without delay, but not more than four business days after” receipt of the request or give written reasons why not, and the specific date the records will be available.
Thank you for your help. Should your have any questions, please contact me at [YOUR TELEPHONE PHONE NUMBER] or via email at [YOUR EMAIL ADDRESS].
Fax: [YOUR FAX NUMBER]
Audit report notes
Doane Public Records Audit
1. Student’s name:
2. What public record did you ask to inspect and copy?
3. What is the name of the city or county agency or college department you visited?
4. Who handled your records request? Name?
5. What is the title of the individual who handled your request?
6. When you asked to inspect the document(s):
a. You were allowed to inspect the documents
b. You were not allowed to inspect the documents
c. You did not ask to inspect the documents
7. Did the agency or department require you to submit your request in writing?
8. When you asked for a copy of the document(s), were you allowed to have a copy?
9. Were you denied access or the opportunity to inspect the record? Yes or no?
10. If allowed to have copies of the document(s), how much were you charged per page?
11. What is the total cost, including search and retrieval time, of your record? Put 0 for none, or another strictly numeric value.
12. On what date did you first visit the agency?
13. What time did you visit the agency or department during your first visit?
14. How long did you spend at the agency or department during your first visit? Enter a value in minutes.
15. How many total contacts with the agency or department were required to obtain the record? (include e-mail, telephone calls and in-person visits)
16. How long did it take the agency or department from your first request to provide the record or refuse the request?
17. Please write a narrative of everything you can remember from inception of asking for the record until the time you received it.