Public Records Request

Public Records

Copperhead knows that any ballot campaign opposing a proposed tax increase at the local level needs accurate information.

Too often, the challenge is that the jurisdiction wanting the new tax money is the same body holding the public records.    Local government officials have honed the art of delay (aka the “slow walk”), obfuscation, and outright refusal.  Then if, in well-earned frustration, our team uses hear-say, community accepted knowledge (I.e. “well everybody knows”) and letters to the editor in the local papers as the basis of their opposition, the governing administrators (I.e. City Administrator, School Superintendent, etc.) will often go to the free local media and demonstrate with calm authority how mistaken your committee is, portraying you as ones with little knowledge and credibility.

Yes, it’s rigged.   But that’s where the opportunity is. 

If your committee is ‘in play’ in the campaign, has the funding in place – if not, see our Fundraising link Here –  and is ready to take your message to the voters in a timely way, then simply putting in the request for public records places the committee in the dominate position.

Here’s Why.

If the administrators are cooperative and comply with their state’s public records law in a timely fashion,  you will receive the records you need to complete the necessary research for your campaign message.

If they are not cooperative, one’s normal recourse is to follow some expensive administrative or judicial appeal process.   We can appeal their lack of cooperation in these various processes, hoping for a positive result – but along the way, time and money are on their side. Too often, the public gives up exhausted and spent.

But a public records request leading up to election date, denied, has a far more powerful “court” to appeal to.  That is the court of public opinion, the voters.  We have seen many times where voters who are generally supportive of the governmental body’s proposal will turn on a dime and oppose it when our client proves the administrators who are leading the effort to pass the new proposal are “cheating” by withholding records.

Your committee can use this denial to do major harm to the credibility of the school, city or county seeking the new tax increase or spending proposal.    Their denial or purposeful ‘slow walk’ can often provide the margin to insure your victory at the hands of the voters.

Our clients have responded to this in many ways but one powerful example can be found below.  This Yankton, SD school district first decided to give us the Superintendent’s contract and later stalled.  Finally, they changed their mind and denied us access to itWe were thrilled!   Listen to the ad we ran on local radio stations in response.

We also sent targeted post-cards out across the city which landed the Friday before the Tuesday vote.  The next day we smiled when we saw big-government bloggers, who were previously supporting the $42 million tax increase, turn on them.  Mission accomplished.  Voters handed them a 66% NO vote.   Some months later the Superintendent resigned after getting ticketed for drunk driving.

We have some sample letters of public records requests for your review below.  But first your committee should become tacitly familiar with the Public Records laws in your state.   A great source to pursue this is found on this link.

Check Here

Click on your state and review the left panel of the screen to get an understanding of the public records laws in your state.  This is produced for journalists and is handy for us to use.  Also see the name at the top of each state summary for the lawyer who drafted the summary for your state.  He/she may be a good contact to have a preliminary conversation with if you are running stuck with a local governmental body.

Finally, increasingly public records requests must be made in writing.  Below are a few samples.  If you are new at this and if time permits, I would start with a formal request and seek one or two items.  Make it easy for the “custodian of public records” or their staff to fulfill your request.  Most jurisdictions we’ve worked with allow the custodian the discretion to charge a fee or not.  The fees are usually fixed by statute and/or board policy.  Review how the fee schedules are established in your state on the link just provided.  If it’s by annual board resolution, ask for a copy of the resolution or written fee policy first.  The “research” time to look up such records is where they will often try to dissuade you and protect their proposal.

If you make it simple for them they may be inclined to not charge you at all.  (This happens more than you may know on simple requests.)  This could be a nice precedent when you come back a few days later with the more complex requests. If you don’t have the time and need plenty of documents, you can submit a more thorough list and then respond based on their reaction.

For sample request letters for public records, see below.

For the short letter Check Here

For a more detailed letter Check Here

We hope this helps you get access to the records you need in your campaign.  If not, at least it positions the government agency in such a way that you can do tremendous harm to their credibility in the last days of your campaign.

If you need help implementing this feel, free to contact Copperhead.  Check Here

Roll Back Local Government