Billy Penn in Harrisburg

This is how reporters get secret info from the government — and you can, too

A guide to filing Right-to-Know requests in Pennsylvania.

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Danya Henninger / Billy Penn
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Let’s say you have a question about which food provider makes your kid’s school lunch every day. Maybe you want to know how many local companies put in a bid on a bridge construction project. Or maybe you’re interested in what’s on your councilperson’s calendar.

You — yes, you! — can request these and other public records from local and state governments.

Access to these documents is the foundation of investigative journalism around monitoring public officials and evaluating government activities, but you don’t have to be a reporter to ask for them. Wasting people’s time with frivolous requests isn’t cool, but if you’re unsure if a record is public, it doesn’t cost anything to file one.

A record can be anything from an email to a video to a tweet, but whether or not it’s public depends on a few factors.

There are 30 exceptions carved out in the state’s Right-to-Know law. Records that identify a minor, reveal a “trade secret,” or could jeopardize public safety are off-limits. The judiciary is exempt from the law, save for financial records.

How exactly do you go about making the request? Here’s a step-by-step guide.

All of the information in this article comes from the Office of Open Records and a training given by its Executive Director Erik Arneson.

1) Figure out which agency you need to contact

Contrary to what it may sound like, the state Office of Open Records (OOR) is not the department with which you file your request. Confusion happens often, Arneson said, and OOR — which deals with appeals — gets dozens of primary requests a year sent directly to them.

Instead, find the appropriate place to send your request using OOR’s database, where you can search for contacts by name, county, and type of agency. It doesn’t contain each and every department and group, Arenson said, but it’s the best place to start.

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2) Write your request

You’ll either compose your request on the agency’s form or on the standard one provided by OOR.

Do not ask questions in your request (like, which company has the contract to feed my kids at Billy Penn Elementary?) Instead, try to be as specific as possible in describing the record you’re looking. Don’t forget to provide a specific timeline.

It’s not a good idea to request a list — if one doesn’t exist, an agency doesn’t have to make it for you. Instead, use “records showing” ahead of the information you want. For example, instead of asking for a list of suspensions at Billy Penn Elementary in 2018, you should ask for *records showing* suspensions.

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There is no fee for electronic copies. However, an agency can charge you 25 cents per page if they have to print a record to redact and it then scan it back into the system. That’s why it’s super important to ask to be notified if the fees will be more than your budget. Do not skip this section of the form.

Arneson said that certified copies are really only necessary in court cases.

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3) Send it

You can send a RTK request by email, snail mail, fax or in-person. If you send your request by email, there’s no requirement the agency connect with you in the same way (meaning you could get a response via USPS).

4) Watch your timeline

There’s a very specific timeline agencies and governments have to follow. The officer must respond within five business days to either grant your request, deny it, grant it in part, or ask for a 30-day extension. Agencies are given one 30-day extension, but after that cannot put off the deadline further without the express approval of the requester, aka you.

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5) Appeal – if necessary

If the agency misses any of above deadlines, or denies part or all of a request, the requester has 15 days to appeal to OOR. That can be done simply online.

The burden of proof is on the agency.

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