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Monday, August 2, 2010
FOI Toolbox

Exercise your FOI muscles

By David Cuillier

Strengthen your public records skills through an easy document-gathering workout regimen:

1. FOI FIRST ON FRIDAYS

Pick one hour a week, block out everything for that hour, and submit one records request. If you do this each week, you’ll have 52 requests a year. If you get stories from just half of them, you’ll raise your reporting a whole level. It also trains agencies to get used to your requests.

2. CARRY REQUEST LETTERS

Create basic records request letters with a space in the middle to write in a description of what you would like (see online automatic letter generators at splc.org or rcfp.org). Carry these form letters to public meetings to fill them out on the fly.

3. TOTE A FLASH DRIVE

While you’re at an agency, ask to have electronic records saved to your flash drive. Also bring along a camera (or your cell phone camera) or a $100 portable scanner for duplicating documents without paying for copies.

4. HAVE PUBLIC RECORDS LAW READY

Photocopy your public records law onto a piece of paper, double-sided in tiny font, and fold it for your wallet or purse (get an electronic copy of your state law at rcfp.org/ogg — click on your state and scroll down on the left to the bottom of the page). If they deny you records, pull out the law and ask the agency to show you which exemption says the record can be withheld. Program an application to pull up the state public records law on a cell phone.

5. PERUSE DETAILED BUDGETS

Examine the detailed, line-by-line budgets of agencies to see where money is spent and raised. This will elicit story ideas and more records.

6. REQUEST THE REQUEST LOGS

Routinely request to see the records request logs, where agencies document who requests records and what they request. The logs will tip you off to interesting records and potential stories. See examples of federal FOIA logs at governmentattic.org.

7. SKETCH “CIRCLE OF LIGHT”

When you background someone for a profile, write his or her name in the middle of a piece of paper. Around the name, in a circle, jot down roles the person has in life (property owner, politician, pet owner, etc.). Then next to each role write records pertaining to that subject (e.g., pet licenses for pet owner). When you’re done you’ll have a solar system of records to check out.

8. SCAN FOI WEBSITES

Find a time to scan FOI websites, such as during the ads of television shows. Get ideas for records and stories. Some good sites include:

• Investigative Reporters and Editors, ire.org (Extra!Extra! section, Story Search morgue and Tipsheet section)

• SPJ Open Doors’ FOI A to Z, spj.org/opendoors7.asp

• Joe Adams’ idiganswers.com (his “hit records”)

9. GO NATIVE

Take a few hours on a slow afternoon and get to know the records in your agency. Have a clerk show you their records, software they use, documents stored and what they process day-to-day. Find out what records they are required to produce.

10. CHECK EMPLOYEE LISTS

Get a list of public employees, including name, title, department and salary. Run the employees through court records, Facebook and MySpace. School substitute teachers, bus drivers and daycare workers are good to check.

David Cuillier is chairman of SPJ’s Freedom of Information Committee.

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