Experts Urge Persistence in Quest for Public Information

Journalists and citizens alike came to the national headquarters of the Society of Professional Journalists in May to hear tips from a panel of access experts on how to pry information out of reluctant public officials. Keith Robinson, ICOG’s interim president, provides this recap of the helpful hints.

Requesting a public document or getting your foot in the door to a meeting improperly closed to the public often takes blood, sweat and tears — and a lot stick-to-it-iveness.

“Sometimes it’s frustrating, but it’s often about persistence,” said Gerry Lanosga, a former investigative producer for Indianapolis television station WTHR.

Lanosga was one of three panelists who gave advice on access issues to the public at a forum May 1 sponsored by the Indiana Coalition for Open Government. Other panelists were Kevin Corcoran, who was an investigative and government reporter for The Indianapolis Star, and Mike Wilkins, an attorney with Ice Miller in Indianapolis.

People requesting a public record frequently are met with many obstacles, such as stubborn gate-keepers of public information well skilled in tactics that delay the release of the material for weeks and months. Some simply are ignorant of the law.

“Often they don’t say why they’re not going to give it to you because they don’t even know why themselves,” Corcoran told an audience of 20 people at the headquarters of the Society of Professional Journalists on Meridian Street in Indianapolis.

“Keep in mind,” Lanosga said, “the burden is on the public office to prove to you that it is not a public record.”

Members of the public often are illegally excluded from meetings of public bodies who conduct executive sessions — meetings closed to the public. Although state law allows executive sessions under certain conditions, Wilkins said they are frequently abused. He said the public’s “biggest hammer” to discourage such meetings is the threat to invalidate action taken improperly, especially in cases in which a board wants to settle an issue quickly.

“Sometimes that threat will give you more access than you otherwise would get,” Wilkins said.

The panelists offered many tips to the audience to help them in their quests for public records and to attend meetings that should be open to the public, among them:

— When requesting a public record, push to get responses in writing in the event the issue of the document’s release should go to court.

— If you believe that you were incorrectly denied a public record or access to a public meeting, you can seek an opinion from the state’s Office of the Public Access Counselor. Understand, however, that the access counselor’s opinion could be in favor of the public body.

— Use the ICOG’s Web site, which offers tools on how to request documents and has links to laws regulating access to public information. The site also features a “legal hotline,” a service in which an attorney will respond to your access query.

— Make an oral request first. (The public body must respond to an oral request within 24 hours. A public body has seven days to respond to a written request.) Then present a written letter to confirm the oral request, advising the office that it has 24 hours to respond.

— Make the request of as many government agencies as possible. You will have a better chance of getting the information you seek.

— Ask for more records than you want. If you ask for 10 documents but need only two, you can negotiate by willingly giving up on the eight you don’t need.

— If the cost of copying a record in the public office is too expensive for you, bring in your own copier, if that is feasible.

— If you want an electronic version of a record, request a list of databases the state maintains. You might find it listed there.

— Seek out lower-level employees in the public offices who might be sympathetic to the public interest in your request for a document.

In the face of sometimes automatic denials, those who request public records and access to public meetings should know the law — or at least know where to get good advice. Denials often are “the baseline response” by officials in public agencies, said Lanosga, a member of the ICOG board.

“They’re anticipating that citizens will say ‘OK’ and go away,” he said.