Here’s how you — yes, you! — can actually get information from Pennsylvania governments

You have a right to know about Right-to-Know law.

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Sarah Anne Hughes

Let’s say you have a question about bids submitted for a local bridge project, food service contracts with your school district, or a council person’s calendar.

You — yes, you! — can request these and other public records from local and state governments. A record can be anything from an email to a video to a tweet, but whether or not it’s public depends on a few factors.

There are 30 exceptions carved out in the state’s Right-to-Know law, which you can check out here, and the judiciary is completely exempt. Fishing expeditions and wasting people’s time isn’t cool, but if you’re unsure if a record is public it doesn’t cost anything to file a request.

How exactly do you go about that? Here’s a step-by-step guide.

All of the information in this article comes from the Office of Open Records and a training given by its Executive Director Erik Arneson.

1. Figure out which agency you need to contact

This may seem obvious, but Arneson said the Office of Open Records (OOR), which deals with appeals, gets dozens of requests sent directly to them a year (don’t do this).

OOR has a database where you can search for contacts by name, county, and type of agency. It doesn’t contain each and every agency, Arenson said, but it’s the best place to start.

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2. Write your request

You’ll either compose your request on the agency’s form or on the standard one provided by OOR.

Do not ask questions in your request (like, which company has the contract to feed my kids at The Incline Elementary?) Instead, try to be as specific as possible about the record you’re looking. Don’t forget to provide a specific timeline.

It’s not a good idea to request a list — if one doesn’t exist, an agency doesn’t have to make it for you. Instead, use “records showing” ahead of the information you want. For example, instead of asking for a list of suspensions at The Incline Elementary in 2018, you should ask for *records showing* suspensions.

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There is no fee for electronic copies. However, an agency can charge you 25 cents per page if they have to print a record to redact it then scan it back into the system. That’s why it’s super important to ask to be notified if the fees will be more than your budget. Do not skip this section of the form.

Arneson said that certified copies are really only necessary in court cases.

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3. Send it

Send a RTK request by email, snail mail, fax, or in-person. If you send your request by email, there’s no requirement the agency connect with you in the same way (meaning you could get a letter in the mail).

4. Watch your timeline

There’s a very specific timeline agencies and governments have to follow. The officer must respond within five business days to either grant your request, deny it, grant it in part, or ask for a 30-day extension. Agencies are given one 30-day extension, but after that the requester must agree to any further delays.

5. Appeal, if necessary

If the agency misses any of above deadlines, or denies part or all of a request, the requester has 15 days to appeal to OOR. That can be done simply online.

The burden of proof is on the agency.