Needling the Haystack

A 1,683-mile drive taught us that educators don't always entertain an open-door policy when it comes to public records

• You can request only documents that already exist. No conjecture. No research. No hidden glances. Only stuff such as e-mails, memos, transcriptions, spreadsheets, digital files, video or sound recordings -- pretty much anything you can think of, so long as it's not just the product of wishful thinking.

• The request has to be in writing. You can talk all you want, but agencies aren't required to provide anything unless the request is written out. If you don't have access to a typewriter or computer, just write it out by hand. Good spelling and penmanship are optional, but at least make sure it's legible.

• It's nobody's business why you want the information. Public officials aren't allowed to ask. Whether you're a reporter or a taxpayer or a tin-foil activist, you've got the right to know what's up without being harassed.

• Don't fall for the "ten days" stall tactic. All kinds of folks will tell you they've got ten days to hand over the information. They're wrong. Requests are supposed to be fulfilled promptly.

• Any questions or problems, call the Texas attorney general's open records hot line at 877-673-6839. -- Keith Plocek

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