Adams, Joe, Investigative Reporters and Editors, Inc. The IRE Journal
Developing a comprehensive state guide
Never underestimate the staying power of a dream.
I wanted to create the ultimate public records guide for my state, but I never expected it to captivate me for 10 years while I spent thousands on hours on interviews, writing and researching - in addition to searching for a publisher and funding.
The Florida Public Records Handbook finally debuted in late December, a 457-page guide on how to research people, governments, businesses and issues in Florida.
Here's some of the information that can be found in the handbook:
Profiles of about 170 of Florida's most useful state and local public records along with the state's open records law. Included: state agency regulations and investigative files on professionals and permit holders; travel expense records; prosecutor case files; land records; Web sites; databases and even useful state publications, such as the Florida Tax Handbook and Local Government Financial Information Handbook.
An explanation of the process that creates the records. For instance, the entry on state and local bond issues explains why bonds are attractive to investors, the role of underwriters and bond counsels, and who normally receives copies of the transcript relating to the bond issue.
The entry on checks and warrants issued by government agencies notes that checks are drawn against an account in a bank, while warrants authorize payments from the state treasury. At the same time, the entry also explains that the state Comptroller's Office keeps an online state vendor history file with a three-year history of expense payments to vendors.
Or, a profile might show that the applications of people who applied unsuccessfully for state or local government jobs are required to remain on file for at least two years.
Another example: The registration and title record maintained by the state's Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles - also keeper of driver history records - doesn't keep records on boating infractions. That's the job of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. So the handbook explains the department's procedure and how to obtain information on infractions.
An explanation of applicable public records laws. Any partial or other exemptions that relate to the records profiled are outlined. The handbook also offers answers to frequently asked questions about access. A sample public records request is provided at the end of the handbook along with a list of major state agency contacts for records.
Each profile points to other entries with similar or related information. I did research at city hall, the courthouse, state agencies, Web libraries, interviewed more than 400 people, logged 500-plus long-distance calls and sent more than 700 e-mails. I figure I spent about 3,000 hours on this book.
So, why submit yourself to an ordeal like this in your state? You'll promote open-records access and open government in a refreshing new way. You will empower today's journalists and those to follow with a valuable new resource. [Journalism professors at five state universities are using the handbook as a teaching tool, with more expected in the fall.] You will take public awareness of FOI to a new level.
And you will learn more than you could ever imagine.
So far, the handbook has generated interest from civic activists, government searchers, attorneys, business people, elected leaders, private investigators and just everyday people. Various folks have sent the First Amendment Foundation notes attached to their handbook orders to say how much they appreciate that such work is being published for the public's benefit. …