MuckRock user Chris Meller uses FOIA to satisfy his curiosities about the government’s involvement with day-to-day life. He recently began investigating the use of automated license plate recognition (ALPR) in his home state of South Carolina. In this week’s Requester’s Voice, Chris discusses his experiences with local public records requests and how he has managed to have his questions answered despite fees and inexperienced FOIA officials.
Where did your interest in filing public records requests come from?
Three years ago, I was living in Columbia, South Carolina and lived on Main Street, a block and a half away from the State House. My car got broken into twice, and I was curious how many other break-ins there had been. So I filed a FOIA with the city to figure out, in the general area, exactly how many there had been.
And was that a successful request?
Yeah, it was. It wasn’t the most interesting, but it was successful and I found out that I was not the only one, so that at least made me feel a little better.
Have you been filing since then?
Actually, I guess until I started using MuckRock, I had filed a handful of them. South Carolina has another law that requires that all school districts publish their financial transactions online every month. I had been looking at some of those and found several districts that hadn’t published them, so I filed FOIAs with them. But that was about it. It didn’t really pick up until I started using MuckRock and especially when I saw Shawn [Musgrave]’s article about ALPR (automated license plate recognition) usage in Boston.
And you’ve started filing similar requests in South Carolina?
And has that proven fruitful for you? Was it difficult to file those requests?
The most difficult part has been finding out who to contact, because I’m doing these little bitty cities. You know, one of them I think has a hundred and something people. So figuring out who is supposed to handle public records requests is a huge pain.
These have all been going to cities and counties, so with some of the bigger ones you can actually find their contact online, even if it may take you an hour of digging around and trying to figure out if the PDF you just found from six years ago is still at all accurate. And then with others it has involved just calling their main switchboard to ask. And then you end up explaining exactly what you’re requesting, because they want to try to get you to this right person.
A lot of the time, whoever you end up talking to will try and figure out exactly who it’s going to end up going to instead of giving you a single point of contact, so you end up explaining exactly what it is you’re looking for three times just to get dumped into somebody’s voicemail who’s not even there.
Did you base your requests off the requests that had been done elsewhere? Was that a helpful model for requests in South Carolina?
Yeah, actually. I want to say I may have added or removed one thing from it but I think I took basically verbatim from Shawn’s request to the Boston Police Department.
And what responses have you been getting?
I’ve gotten several that claim they have no responsive documents and several that have tried to half answer it just in an email and haven’t actually sent me any documents. One has charged me already and two others look like they’re going to try to gouge me in the price. But I haven’t gotten any outright rejections so far.
Why does it seem some are trying to price gouge you? And are these bigger departments?
Well, one of them, I don’t actually know how big the department is, but it’s Myrtle Beach, which practically everyone has heard of. Their Public Information Officer had made a big deal about working with the police department to put together an estimate of the cost and then they would have the records available for me to review in Myrtle Beach, which doesn’t help me at all. So I’m not terribly hopeful at this point that they’re going to come back with anything other than $300 or something.
One of the others that have come back, I want to say it was $100 to $200 that they wanted. They had been very comprehensive with the list of documents that they’d found, and I was able to work with the person who handles their FOIA requests to get the answers I wanted without actually paying anything, so it may still work out. But I’ve gotten kind of cynical about the whole thing with some of the smaller departments.
How were you able to negotiate down on the request fee and still get what you were looking for? Was it just a lot of conversation?
It was one of those little tiny beach communities down toward Charleston, and they wanted a couple of hundred dollars to send me all of these emails and tons of records. I had really asked four basic questions and I was able to reply, “Alright, that’s great. I appreciate the effort.” Then I was able to tell him that, “You know, in requests to other agencies I’ve gotten basically the answer to all four questions from two different documents.”
Usually there’s a contract or an invoice from whoever they bought the systems from or whoever installed the systems that answers the first several pieces of my request, and then, as far as policies and procedures, several had sent me just a page of the general orders from the police department. So he was actually able to basically summarize some of the records that he was going to send me, and I think I got all of the answers. I’d still like a copy of the contract, but I haven’t tried to push that yet. But I managed to get all the actual answers I was looking for.
You had said you were a little cynical about the process when it came to these smaller departments. Have people been unhelpful or unclear on what their role is in the process?
A lot of it is that, yes, some of the smaller ones just don’t know what to do. They have a general idea, but they’re not a bigger city, and they don’t get dozens of these requests. Mine may be the first one they’ve ever gotten. So it just takes some time for them to figure out what they’re doing. And sometimes they try and act bigger than they actually are and try to speak in legalese, very formal.
Whereas with some of the larger departments, it’s a much more cordial, “Alright, we’ll just exchange a couple of emails. Is this what you need? Okay, great.” I think it’s just different for smaller departments, and they’re kind of afraid. They don’t know what they’re doing, so it’s kind of a fear of the unknown. What could happen if we answer this wrong?
Do you have any advice for any people who are just starting out filing their own FOIA requests?
There are tons of people giving advice on filing your Freedom of Information Act request, and it seems to span all the possible recommendations you could get, from being extremely formal and knowing the law to being really informal and try and work with the people, not the system. And I think it just comes down to knowing when to combine the two approaches.
So it can be helpful knowing exactly what the law is, and I’ve found just reading other people’s requests on MuckRock has been a big help, especially in the way to phrase things. A lot of times you don’t know what to ask for. Unless you can actually get on the phone with somebody at the agency and figure out the exact name of the record you need to request, it can be difficult. But MuckRock can help with that, because you can find similar requests in other jurisdictions that give you a better idea of how to phrase the request to get what you’re looking for.
Image via ChrisMeller.com