September: What records requesters want–a top ten list

2009 Columns

Recently, I was asked to present at a conference on open government held by the Wisconsin Counties Association, as someone who uses and promotes the use of the state’s open records law. What did I want this roomful of records custodians to know?

Thus, the Top Ten Things Requesters Want list was born. It’s not likely to be read on David Letterman, but it may be useful to other requesters and custodians across the state.

1) A posted policy: Wisconsin statute 19.34 requires all state and local public offices to “prominently display” a notice explaining their records policy. It should list hours of availability, official custodians, and costs. Do it, it’s the law.

2) A willingness to accept oral and emailed requests: The law says an oral request is considered valid, but only written requests require a written response. Nothing in the law excludes email from the definition of a written request. Custodians can avoid having to provide written responses, especially to run-of-the-mill requests, by letting requesters know they can get many records just by asking.

3) A timely response: The law says custodians must respond “as soon as practicable and without delay.” The state Attorney General’s Office advises that responses should be issued within 10 working days. For simple requests, it should be sooner.

4) Reasonable fees: The law says custodians can charge for the “actual, necessary and direct cost” of making copies, plus the “actual, necessary and direct cost” of locating records, if over $50. The AG’s office advises that fees about 25 cents a page are suspect. Custodians should not charge more than that; and the law allows them to waive fees.

5) Clear communication: The custodian should call the requester if there is confusion about a request and to give updates on response time, fees, and other issues. If the requester does not wish to provide contact information, the custodian can set up an appointment.

6) A non-adversarial approach: The law says providing access to information is “declared to be … an integral part of the routine duties of officers and employees.” Citizens are entitled to courteous and efficient service, and custodians should try to resolve concerns regarding the size, scope or clarity of a request, rather than use these as an opportunity to deny it.

7) Direction to other resources: If you don’t have the records but you know they are available on-line or elsewhere, say so.

8) Getting records in the requested format: Providing records in electronic form may make them more useful to the requester and it saves paper and copy time.

9) Respect for a requester’s right to remain anonymous: The law says “No request … may be refused because the person making the request is unwilling to be identified or to state the purpose of the request.”

Though it may complicate compliance, requesters do not have to say who they are or why they want a record.

10) Public officials who use openness to their advantage: Besides being familiar with the law and responsive to requests, custodians should flaunt the fact that they have nothing to hide and that the public has a right to see records. This builds trust and political support. It’s the smart thing to do.

In the end, the open records law is about democracy. Responding to open records requests may be a pain and a chore, but citizens have the right to records to better inform themselves about government and ultimately hold it accountable. We are grateful to those many custodians who honor this fundamental principle every time they respond to a records request.

Christa Westerberg is a Madison attorney and vice president of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council (, dedicated to open meetings and open records. Your Right to Know is a monthly column distributed by the council.