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Here’s how to get public records

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Open government is good government, and part of that is for citizens to be able to easily obtain information from their state, county, city or township.

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So we offer this brief guide to obtaining public records. It was compiled by the St. Cloud Times, for newspapers to use during Sunshine Week.

How to get started

Step 1 – Determine what information you want and which agency has it.

Local government numbers and addresses can be found online or in the blue pages of the telephone book. State agencies can be found on the state website, www.state.mn.us.

Step 2 – Visit the website. Agencies are putting more information online. Check the website to see if the data you’re looking for is easily accessible there. If you have trouble finding something or struggle to navigate the site, call the agency.

Step 3 – Make a request for data. You can ask for public information in person. It helps to have what you want written down and dated, but it’s not required by state law. You can make an oral request.

Getting the information

Step 4 – How long does it take? The law says the agency has to produce the data upon request, which means it should happen quickly. But it’s fair to give the agency time to produce your information. Common documents like board minutes and budgets should be produced promptly. Extensive requests will take more time.

The law requires that governments store the information in a way that is easily retrievable.

Step 5 – How do I get my information? You can simply review it at the agency’s office. The law requires someone to explain it to you if you want. You can also get copies of documents, on paper or on discs, if you have large requests.

The government cannot charge you simply to look at the data, but it can charge to make copies.

Step 6 – How much do copies cost? For the first 100 paper copies, the law allows governments to charge up to 25 cents a page for standard-sized no color copies.

For other types of copies, including computer discs and faxes, the government can charge the actual cost of making the copy, including staff time and materials.

If you run into troubles

Step 7 – what if I’m denied the information? Ask the clerk to cite the statute in writing that prevents the release of the information. If you think the law is being incorrectly applied, speak to a supervisor. If necessary, ask to speak to the person responsible for government data. Each agency is required to have a responsible authority for public data.

Step 8 – Are there other ways to challenge the denial? Yes, Minnesota has an office in the Department of Administration (called the Information Policy Analysis Division) which is legally responsible for issuing opinions in data practices disputes. The phone number is 800-657-3721 or online at www.ipad.state.mn.us.

Step 9 – Call a lawyer. A number of attorneys in Minnesota are experts in data practice laws. The lawyer might send a letter to the agency to try to convince officials the information is public. Ultimately, you can sue to have the information released. And you don’t even have to go to court. The state Office of Administrative Hearings is new directed by law to decide claims within about three months.

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