Superintendent doesn’t like ‘tone’ of public records request

I saw this fascinating public records battle on Twitter the other day and had to know more:

Jennifer Dale is the news director at WJHL News Channel 11 in Johnson City, Tenn. I asked her to share more about her struggle to get the superintendent’s contract. Here’s how it went down, according to Jennifer:

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We first made the request in late February when we called & asked for the contract. We didn’t get any response to our phone calls, so we sent them a FOIA letter. We didn’t hear back, so I had a reporter call again. The reporter was told our request was denied because WJHL isn’t located in Virginia. (We are in a split market—half in TN, half in VA. )

I’m perfectly aware that this isn’t legal, but I asked our sister station Roanoke to FOIA the contract, since it is on the edge of their market. I was curious about their response.. and honestly didn’t care how we got the letter as long as we received it.

They were told they were not sure if the letter was valid.

Here is a portion of the superintendent’s email:

I have no way of knowing if you are a journalist unless you are on a national television news channel.

This letter is similar to one received from Johnson City, TN and we are not sure this letter is valid.

If you would like to make a personal visit, I will talk with you, otherwise, this will be referred to our attorney.

The cost will be more than $25.00.

Thank you,

Larry Ashby
Superintendent

I emailed Mr. Ashby directly, making sure he understood Virginia law and offering to speak with him to see if I could alleviate any concerns he might have. He didn’t take me up on the offer and had his secretary email me.

My email included a portion of the law below.

Code of Virginia 2.2-3704.
Access to such records shall not be denied to citizens of the Commonwealth, representatives of newspapers and magazines with circulation in the Commonwealth, and representatives of radio and television stations broadcasting in or into the Commonwealth. The custodian may require the requester to provide his name and legal address.

I received this email yesterday from his secretary.

Ms. Dale, you may receive a copy of Mr. Ashby’s contract. The fee is $75.00, payable before receipt, this is what we charge our local newspapers.

We would have complied earlier, but it was the tone of the letter that Mr. Ashby didn’t like.

Thank you,
Carolyn Dillow

I responded with a question about how they reached the $75 fee and more Virginia Law.

Can you or Mr. Ashby please give me the details about why contract would cost a $75 fee to share? All the other school systems faxed them over no charge.

Virginia law says that that reasonable charges are allowed, but those charges cannot exceed the actual cost incurred in duplicating the record. Considering it is a contract, it seems that the only duplication would be putting it on a copier and sending through a fax or the cost of a stamp to mail it. If it truly does cost $75 to duplicate the request, please include how you arrived at the $75 fee. We’d like to include that information in the story we are currently working on.

F. A public body may make reasonable charges not to exceed its actual cost incurred in accessing, duplicating, supplying, or searching for the requested records. No public body shall impose any extraneous, intermediary or surplus fees or expenses to recoup the general costs associated with creating or maintaining records or transacting the general business of the public body. Any duplicating fee charged by a public body shall not exceed the actual cost of duplication. The public body may also make a reasonable charge for the cost incurred in supplying records produced from a geographic information system at the request of anyone other than the owner of the land that is the subject of the request. However, such charges shall not exceed the actual cost to the public body in supplying such records, except that the public body may charge, on a pro rata per acre basis, for the cost of creating topographical maps developed by the public body, for such maps or portions thereof, which encompass a contiguous area greater than 50 acres. All charges for the supplying of requested records shall be estimated in advance at the request of the citizen.

I also mentioned I’d love to speak with him about the tone of my letter, since it was just a records request and had nothing in it that wasn’t related to the law, who we were or what we were requesting.

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So, has Jennifer heard back from the superintendent? “Not yet,” she says. “His secretary says he’s out of town til next week.”

Savannah posts public records requests online

Just last week, I was saying that reporters should file requests to see what public records others are requesting. Well, if you cover the City of Savannah, you can totally ignore that advice because the city is now posting the requests online.

Savannah Morning News reporter Eric Curl says the city has already posted public records requests from “a diverse bunch of lawyers, business owners, journalists and curious citizens,” including the requesters’ first and last names and city and state.

“One Tennessee man wanted to know the dates he got married and subsequently divorced about four decades ago,” Eric writes. “Others sought information about code violations, environmental studies, restaurant openings and crime.”

The city isn’t stopping there. It hopes to eventually post the actual records that people requested.

Do any government agencies do this in your area? If so, I’d love to know about it. Reach me on Twitter @RecordsGeek or at kahinchcliffe@gmail.com.

What books are banned in prisons?

Prison booksWant a fun story to do? Find out what books, magazines and other publications are banned in prisons in your state. I filed a public records request to get a list of publications that North Carolina inmates were denied in 2013 and the reasons they were rejected.

STORY: ‘Violent, deviant sexual acts:’ Prison records show why inmates are denied books

Many of the banned books and magazines contained nudity and violence, which wasn’t a surprise, but there were a few unusual ones. Here are some of my favorites:

  • “Tryptamine Palace” depicts how to make illegal drugs from toad venom
  • “Body Language 101″ has material that could be used to intimidate staff
  • Field & Stream Hunting Guide provides information how to silently stalk a victim
  • “The Colored Pencil Artist’s Drawing Bible” is bound together by metal wire
  • Popular Science magazine instructs how to turn a match into a rocket
  • Maxim magazine details how to extract intoxicants from a whipped cream can

My talented coworkers took the book titles and created a quiz to test our readers to see if they would deny the same books that prison staff did. In the story, I explain more about the process prisons go through, including how inmates get books and who reviews them. But what I love about this project is that it all started with a simple public records request on an off-the-wall topic.

‘Don’t be a jerk:’ Pro tips from a public information director

Susan Moran, public information director for the Town of Cary, N.C.

Susan Moran, public information director for the Town of Cary, N.C.

I often use this blog to feature journalists who are doing excellent work using public records. Now let me introduce you to Susan Moran, public information director for the Town of Cary, N.C., who knows her stuff when it comes to the public records law.

I’ve heard Susan speak at several Sunshine Week events in North Carolina over the years and have admired her blunt advice, including this great line – “Don’t be a jerk.” I asked her to share some advice for how journalists and PIOs can better work together when it comes to public records and to explain how she handles public information requests for Cary, a town of about 144,000 people.

Q: How does Cary handle public records, records requests and posting information online?

A: It starts at the top with the expectations for openness, responsiveness, and practicality set by our Town Council and implemented by their hire, the Town Manager, who serves as the CEO for our organization. Knowing and fully supporting the letter and spirit of all laws, not just those involving public records and open meetings, is a foundation of our organizational culture. It’s how we do business. It’s even in our Statement of Values.

As for putting it into action, back in 1997 the Town Council decided to go paperless, directing that we get rid of those large, paper, bimonthly meeting agenda packets that so many local governments still use and, instead, putting all the materials online for them. The result, which they understood and embraced, was that citizens, media – everyone – would get all the information at the same time. The Town didn’t even have a website back then; posting these public records online was the reason that the Town’s website was created, and today, that site has grown to over 55,000 files, serving almost like the municipal government’s encyclopedia.

Beyond going paperless, the Council adopted a policy that directs saff on how to support the NC Public Records Laws, including deciding for Cary that, whenever possible, “as promptly as possible” would be interpreted as two business days – our standing goal for responding to most public records requests.

The good news is that with such a robust website, most everyone can find the more frequently requested information for themselves 24/7; they don’t have to come to us.

Finally, and I think just as importantly, is the annual training we do as part of Sunshine Week, which our Town Clerk’s Office leads. They try to come up with fun yet meaningful activities to keep records management best practices in the forefront of what we’re doing each day for our community.

Q: What advice you have for other local governments about dealing with public records and requests?

A: First, let’s be clear that every place is different. I know; I’ve worked in a lot of different places – county government, state government, public schools, universities, the private sector…And I get that the way we do it in Cary wouldn’t necessarily work out of the gate for every place in every situation. That said, I do think there are some points that transcend organizational boundaries:

It starts at the top. If the organization is going to be consistently open and responsive, that lives or dies with the CEO and her/his governing board. They either set the clear expectation, provide the necessary resources, and hold their folks accountable, or they don’t. And I can’t overstate the importance of the resources part. You have to provide the tools and training and time to do their jobs when it comes to records requests just like you have to with all the other responsibilities staff have in their daily work.

Know the law. Know what you must give, can’t give, and could give and why. For most requests, there’s not a lot of gray area, and in my 20+ years of doing governmental PR, I’ve only come across a few instances where I’ve been asked for something that clearly was to be protected, but it’s on you, the custodian, to know what you’re doing. Keeping private records private is as important under the law as providing access to public records.

Have a game plan. In Cary, it’s our Public Records Policy and the standard practices we’ve developed over the years for appropriately responding to records requests. Read about it in the Public Records section of http://www.townofcary.org.

Know the difference between responding to requests for records and requests for information, the latter of which can involve lots of time doing investigative research and numbers crunching that’s not required under the law. You may decide you want to do that for media and others, but you don’t have to under the law. And if you decide to do it for one, you should be committed to doing it for all every time. If you can’t live up to that promise, then stick to the records.

Do the right thing. We’ve all heard of times when a reporter asked for a record using a specific, incorrect title, and what they got in return was nothing because the title was wrong. Yet, a record containing the information, just titled something else, was there all along. Whether it’s playing games with the names of records or just not being responsive, nine times out of 10 the record gets out there, and then you have two problems: whatever the record was containing that you didn’t want to deal with publicly and now the perception that you were trying to cover it up, even if you really weren’t.

Be as committed to fulfilling records requests as you are to your favorite task at work because, as much as it may feel differently to you at the time, that records request is just as much a part of your job description as anything else you’ve signed up for. Following state law isn’t optional.

Don’t be a jerk. Media aren’t just media; many live in your community and are, at a minimum, some of the citizens you’ve promised to serve (and I hope serve well) in your job.

Q: What advice you have for journalists and members of the public who are making records requests?

A: And we come full circle here by saying again — Don’t be a jerk; in fact, be friendly. Yes, providing access to records is PART of an overworked, underpaid staff member’s job, but, just like anything else, how you treat the custodian of that record can put you at the top of the day’s To Do List or the bottom.

Pick up the phone. Unless you’re dealing with a lawyer, don’t make your first contact for a record that threatening, legalese email that cites your rights under GS 132. You can always follow-up your call with a confirmation email. Save the threat if it’s needed.

Develop relationships not just sources.

Investigate. Know the organization’s public records policies and practices before having to make your first request so that you can get what you want as quickly as possible.

Read. Most local governments have websites now, and many are chocked full of the information you want. Go look for it first. Yes, media are underpaid and overworked, too, but you’re the one that’s “on deadline.” Use the tools you have.

Don’t cite FOIA. It shows you don’t know what you’re talking about. Most things in NC local government aren’t subject to FOIA.

Tell us why. No, you don’t have to, but lots of times, you’re looking for a needle in a haystack, and you’re asking for the haystack, which is taking us time and will, in turn, take you lots of time. Why not try for the needle and give us both a break?

Know whether you’re asking for a record or for information, the latter of which we don’t have to provide and will sometimes take more time. That’s where relationships and not being a jerk can really help you.

Double-check assumptions. You may think that a particular record you want is a smoking gun, but you may have totally misunderstood the role that a particular record is playing in your investigation.

Put wait time into your plan. Everyone you call for records is busy doing other things, and while you’re request is important, many folks can’t or won’t be willing to drop what they’re doing for others to help you jump to the front of the line. Ask what’s a reasonable time for getting your record and negotiate from there if needed.

Finally, don’t make the same records request of several people within the organization at the same time in hopes that one will quickly hit. You’ll be unnecessarily burning lots of peoples’ time, people who talk to each other and find out later what you did “to them.” That’s jerk behavior.

Q: Anything else you’d like to share?

A: Yes. First, thanks for doing this post. It reinforces what I’ve seen for years with WRAL – good people trying hard to get it right and in the right way.

Second, while there are real, terribly sad and disturbing stories every day around the world of governments not doing their best for the people they serve, most of us, just like most in the media, come to work every day choosing service as our way of life, and most of us are doing the right thing. As we interact together day-in and day-out, I think we do our best when we work as partners toward the shared goal of making the most of each others’ resources to help ensure a vital, informed, and involved citizenry.

Journalists aren’t the only ones requesting records

Have you ever filed a request to see what public records others are requesting? You should try it sometime. You’ll discover that journalists aren’t the only ones trying to get records. Lawyers, parents, businessmen, etc. file some pretty interesting requests – some that might be worth a story. Here are two recent examples:

Records: Penn State axed public praise for Joe Paterno following football coach’s death

“Newly released records show Penn State University planned to issue a statement honoring football coach Joe Paterno in the days after his death, then scrapped the idea amid the widening Jerry Sandusky child sexual abuse scandal.” READ MORE

You know who requested those records? An alumnus who filed a Right-to-Know request, according to WFMZ.com.

Gloucester County denies jail supervisor’s request for videos; public records lawsuit follows

Joe Green, a crime and courts reporter with The South Jersey Times, writes this brilliant lede:

“Gloucester County officials had no problem allowing a paranormal investigation team to seek ghostly activity in the semi-defunct county jail this winter. But they refused to give video footage to a jail supervisor trying to root out bad employee behavior, a lawsuit claims.” READ MORE

The jail supervisor asked for copies of videos and phone records under New Jersey’s Open Public Records Act (OPRA). He was denied, according to NJ.com, because county officials said releasing the footage “would jeopardize the security of the building or persons therein.” The jail supervisor says the video he wants comes “from cameras not in holding areas or jail security areas, but from public, publicly accessible or administrative sections.”

Tips for covering Charlotte mayor’s arrest and other big stories

Charlotte Mayor Patrick Cannon (source: charmeck.org)

Charlotte Mayor Patrick Cannon (source: charmeck.org)

“This Charlotte mayor story is a record geek’s dream come true.”

A friend sent me that message today after news broke that Charlotte Mayor Patrick Cannon had been arrested and charged with corruption. He is accused of soliciting and accepting more than $48,000 in cash, airline tickets, a hotel room and the use of a luxury apartment as bribes.

This is the kind of story where a public records mindset is so important. In the coming days, reporters will be going to the mayor’s house and hunting down friends and colleagues for comments, but how many will be filing public records requests?

The first and possibly most important public record has already been released – the FBI’s 48-page affidavit, which breaks down the case against the mayor. But reporters should keep digging.

Cannon was the longest-serving elected official in Charlotte, according to The Charlotte Observer, and that means there’s a long trail of records that should be examined.

So, how should newsrooms handle public records requests when covering a huge story like this? Here are some ideas:

1) First, make a commitment to requesting records. Asking for records shouldn’t be something your newsroom only does if it has time. It must be part of the reporting process.

2) Select a point person who can help coordinate and organize the requests. The mayor’s communications office is going to be slammed with requests for interviews and other information. You don’t want two reporters in your newsroom asking for the same documents. That just slows down the process and annoys the communications office.

3) Make smart, thoughtful requests. Would it be great to read every email the mayor ever sent and received? Sure, but it will take a long time to get that. If you’re willing to wait, fine. In the meantime, try scaling back your request and only ask for emails that include certain keywords or are from a specific timeframe.

4) Find records that others overlook. Will reporters ask for the mayor’s emails? Probably, and you should, too. But find other records that will add depth to your stories, such as text messages, letters, visitor logs, voicemails, phone records, etc.

5) Stay on top of your requests. Don’t file and forget it. Call the person you sent the request to, be pleasant and ask for his or her help. Making that connection could help you get records faster than everyone else.

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How does your newsroom handle public records requests? Post a comment or write to me at kahinchcliffe@gmail.com or on Twitter @RecordsGeek.

How many nameless dead are in your state?

Unidentified people

Do you know how many unidentified dead people are in your state? Until recently, we had 115 nameless dead in North Carolina, where I live. I reported on their cases last fall, using a publicly available database called NamUs, or the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System.

You can search for cases by state, sex, race, ethnicity, age and more. Each case includes the medical examiner’s case number, the circumstances of the person’s death, physical and medical descriptions, descriptions and photos of clothing and accessories and, occasionally, a headshot from the autopsy or a sketch of the person.

I used the database to write a story and create a map showing where the 115 people were found around North Carolina. I also made a slideshow of the sketches and artist renderings that were available:

I recently found out that a local police officer helped identify four of the unknown people using his fingerprint analysis skills. Once he discovered the people’s names, he began searching for their family members to let them know what happened. I asked how he is trying to track them down, and you know what his answer was? PUBLIC RECORDS.