Editor’s note: This column is part of a seven-day Forum Communications series on the First Amendment. If you have a question or comment, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
The question wasn’t the most pressing. Far from it. But toward the end of last summer, after the smoke had settled and it had been made clear that police accountability and racial justice were issues for our time, another question was able to be considered, one of concern to all of us who pay taxes.
How much did all that police overtime cost us following the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis? And what would it mean for our local budgets?
In Duluth, my colleagues at the News Tribune dug in and found out, including by formally requesting police payroll and other records. And the answer was an eye-popper: a cool $244,090 in less than a month — three times the OT for the same period a year earlier.
The answer and the reporting could be chalked up as another public records-accessing success story, another time a community was served with information and context it wanted and needed.
But you don't have to be a newspaper reporter, whistle-blower or even someone important to request to see data that’s public.
Freedom-of-information laws guarantee your access, including Minnesota's Government Data Practices Act and the North Dakota Open Records Statute. It's your right as an American to be able to inspect the documents and other information that yield what the government is doing — and isn't doing but should be. It's your responsibility as a citizen to make sure that what elected and appointed bodies are up to is legal, proper, and in line with community priorities.
Data, documentation and information are necessary for government accountability. No denying. But how do we go about getting at those records? How does one submit written requests for public information?
The good news is there’s no special form to fill out, and a request for information under the federal law known as the Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA, can be made of any agency and for any document. As long as the document exists. Just gotta ask.
“FOIA does not require agencies to create new records or to conduct research, analyze data, or answer questions when responding to requests,” the U.S. Department of Justice says at foia.gov, a webpage that's a treasure trove of guidance and information about accessing public information.
A request for data “simply must be in writing and reasonably describe the records you seek,” the department instructs. “Most federal agencies now accept FOIA requests electronically, including by web form, email or fax.”
Agencies typically process requests in the order they're received. How long it takes often depends on the complexity of the request and the number of requests ahead of you. Sample FOIA request letters found online suggest asking for “a prompt response” and to be told if a significant delay is expected.
Remember, "All the business (that the) government does, whether in open public meetings or behind closed doors, is your business,” as Community Newspaper Holdings National Editor Jim Zachary of Georgia wrote in an op-ed in 2020. “Every last penny (the) government spends is your money. ... It is your right to know every transaction, every decision, every expenditure and every deliberation. ... Whether talking about the White House, the statehouse, or the county courthouse, all the documents held in government halls belong to the people, and all the business conducted by our governors is public business.”
So never be shy about asking to access it. As the nonpartisan nonprofit Public Record Media says, “In order to ensure oversight, enable public input, and uphold the integrity of the democratic process itself, access to information about the workings of government and the large institutions it interfaces with is essential."
In other words, public information belongs to the public. All of it. Even if it’s not the most pressing question of the moment, everyone has a right to ask for it.
To request public information
To learn more about the federal Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA, and how to request public information under the law, go to foia.gov.
A sample Minnesota FOIA request letter is at www.nfoic.org/minnesota-sample-foia-request/.
A sample North Dakota FOIA request letter is at www.nfoic.org/north-dakota-sample-foia-request/.