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Other audits of states' public records laws:


According to eight audits of public records laws in seven states, records custodians are not granting full access to public records. Two of the studies were conducted in academic settings -- one a cooperative effort between Brown University and the University of Rhode Island, the other at the University of Florida (the report of which is presented here). Five newspapers across the country have studied their states' public records laws by monitoring access providers. In one state, Connecticut, a state agency conducted the audit.

This section is organized as follows: (Clicking on any of the headings will take you directly to that section of the report.)

Academic studies

Newspapers' studies Government Studies


Academic studies

The academic studies differ from the newspaper studies in that they follow more scientific methodologies, making their results more reliable and authoritative.

Rhode Island

In the study conducted by Brown University and the University of Rhode Island in 1997, students analyzed records custodians' behaviors when responding to records requests. The students attempted to collect public records from 40 cities and towns in Rhode Island, and then the students analyzed how often they received the requested records.

The students in the study worked in pairs and visited each agency twice. They requested police, voter and tax records from agencies in each city or town.

The police departments received the lowest ratings for courtesy -- in some instances, records requesters perceived custodians' behavior as harassing or intimidating. When requesters attempted to get information from police departments, most asked for identification or for reasons for requesting the information. Researchers said police departments said they would not comply with records requests because they were afraid that releasing records would interfere with ongoing investigations or invade the privacy of the subjects of the records.

Repeated study

One year after the original Brown University study, students at the university repeated it. In the second study, 15 students and a troop of volunteers from counties across the state went to police departments, municipalities and school districts in every city in Rhode Island to request public records. According to the study report, requesters made more comprehensive requests than they had the previous year by asking for specific groupings of records during two or three consecutive visits to the government offices.

According to the results of the study, the researchers found that some departments had improved during the year between the studies in granting access to public information, while some departments did not. In the second study, almost all of the police departments allowed access to police logs, and all of the school districts allowed access to contracts and meeting minutes.

However, there was still room for improvement in all areas. Police departments complied with records requests 37 percent of the time; Municipal offices complied with requests 32 percent of the time; school districts complied with requests 85 percent of the time.


Newspapers' studies

Although newspapers' studies may be considered less authoritative because they do not follow specific, scientific methodologies, they are no less useful in understanding the practical functions of public records laws. So far, newspapers in five states have conducted such studies. In each of the studies, records requesters asked for access to public records. In all six states studied, records custodians denied access to records that were statutorily required to be open to the public.

Florida

In a series of articles, "An Open Government: Citizens Have the Right to Know," a team of four reporters in Charlotte County, Fla. went to three government agencies in the county within a two-week period. The reporters asked for the same public records at the county commission, the school board and the airport authority. The Sun Herald newspaper analyzed the responses each reporter received by placing them into four categories: whether the reporter received the record, whether there were conditions of access, whether identification was required and the time it took for custodians to respond to the requests.

The results showed that while the agencies held the same kinds of records, there were inconsistencies in the conditions of access for each agency. The county commission best facilitated access to records. Their records were readily available to the public, and records custodians asked a minimum of questions before granting access.

Access to school district files were the most difficult because records custodians were intimidating, according to the reporters who participated in the audit. One records custodian consistently asked for names, phone numbers and reasons for requesting access to public records. When the reporters refused to offer information by saying, "I would rather not discuss it," the records custodian would continue to push for the information.

The airport authority was the least knowledgeable of the Public Records Law. Reporters repeatedly had to show records custodians passages in the Government -in-the-Sunshine Manual to prove that the records they were requesting were open to public inspection.

Indiana

More recently, the Evansville (Indiana) Courier published a five-part series in which it showed that records custodians in all 92 counties in the state routinely refused to release public records. Seven newspapers sent personnel to every county to ask for access to a myriad of public records, including crime logs, adoption records, drivers' license information, death certificates, minutes of government meetings and school district personnel records.

The results of the series showed that sheriff's departments were the worst offenders in refusing to grant access. Sixty-six custodians in sheriff's offices, or 71.7 percent, denied access to crime reports and 50 custodians, or 54.3 percent, denied access to crime logs. In some instances, custodians said a subpoena was needed to see a crime log. In one instance, a sheriff ran a license plate check on a requester and required her to produce her driver's license.

After the newspaper published the audit, one sheriff said the figures for access to law enforcement records were low because the records requesters did not identify themselves. Had the newspaper reporters identified themselves, the sheriff said, they would have received access to the records. Another sheriff said that the low compliance figures could be attributed to the records requesters. He said the records requesters had an ulterior motive -- they wanted the figures to be low B so they requested the records in a way to provoke the records requesters to deny access.

The most compliant records requesters in the Indiana study were public school districts. They granted access to school board meeting minutes 85.9 percent of the time. In Jefferson County, the records custodian was so well-versed in the law, she was able to quote the statute regarding the availability of the school board minutes for public inspection. The minutes were bound and ready for efficient public access. However, in Vigo County, the records custodian asked three times why the requester wanted access of the minutes. Instead of providing access, she asked for the requester's name and phone number and said she would call back later to let the requester know if she would grant access to the records.

Virginia

Newspapers across the state of Virginia banded together to conduct their own study of records custodians' responses. Requesters went to government agencies, such as school boards, administrators' departments, health departments and police and sheriff's departments, in all 135 cities and counties. They received the requested public records only 58 percent of the time.

The Virginia study also found that sheriff's offices and police departments were least likely to provide requested records. The records custodians refused requests for crime reports 84 percent of the time. The records custodians said they would not release the records because they contained "sensitive information."

Excuses for refusing to release public information were not isolated to law enforcement offices. Other agencies visited denied access to the records because the records custodians said: records could not be released without approval from a supervisor; information could only be released for a good reason; the person to whom the information pertained had to give permission for the records to be released; the information could not be released if it was computerized.

New Jersey

The Asbury Park Press in New Jersey headed up a survey of government agencies in 213 towns across the state. Records requesters asked for access to budgets, monthly bill lists, salary and overtime records, and school superintendent contracts.

Fewer than 25 percent of requests for information at law enforcement offices were granted. About 30 percent of requests for school budgets were denied and more than two-thirds of the requests for superintendents' contracts were denied. Records custodians refused access because requesters were not residents of the towns, because the requests were not in writing or because requesters needed to provide proof that they did not have arrest records.

Texas

The Corpus Christi Caller Timesanalyzed the responses from 100 government agencies in the coastal bend region of Texas. The paper sent written requests to the agencies asking for the names and birth dates of bus drivers and copies of budgets for the 1998 - 1999 fiscal year.

Fifty-eight percent of the government agencies did not comply fully with the law. Often, records custodians questioned requesters' planned uses for the information, which is a violation of Texas law. Custodians also delayed access to public records beyond the 10-day time limit imposed by the Texas public records law.


Government Studies

Connecticut

Connecticut's study was sponsored by the Connecticut Foundation For Open Government, Inc. and the Connecticut Freedom of Information Commission. The study was modeled on Rhode Island's study.

In the Connecticut study, students were recruited from seven colleges and universities to conduct 170 records requests in government agencies across the state. The students visited school districts to ask for attendance records, police departments for arrest reports and municipal clerks to ask for marriage licenses. The specific records were chosen because they were clearly public documents in accordance with Connecticut's public records law.

The results of the study showed that total compliance among the three categories was just 22 percent. Compliance for this study was defined as not only providing access, but also, "requiring no antecedent conditions to be met before viewing the records, such as requiring identification or a reason for making the request. It also meant no requirement to submit a written request and no fees charged for allowing the surveyor to see the records."

The municipal clerks were most compliant - they provided access to the records 37 percent of the time. The police departments were compliant 21 percent of the time, and the school districts were compliant only 10 percent of the time. The students judged records custodians' temperaments when responding to requests. According to the students, the custodians ranged from rude and suspicious to courteous and polite.

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