As soon as you become concerned about a situation or issue, you should immediately write a concise letter requesting all the documents that could be relevant. The sample freedom of information request letter that is shown with this article is for initial guidance. In your letter, give the subject of your inquiry and describe as thoroughly as possible the documents you are requesting, while asking for others you may not know about. Use the sample letters for ideas. The sample letter relates to prospective condemnation of an area for redevelopment. Your letter needs to be more specific for this and other purposes. The request for eminent domain information may be a particularly difficult one, considering that legal proceedings and/or information related to real estate transactionsrequested in this lettermay be exempt from the freedom of information law. Each state's freedom of information law and that of the federal government have exemptions where copies of documents do not have to be provided to the citizen. In addition, under the freedom of information laws, generally an agency is not required to create information for you or even to answer a question. Therefore, you generally have the right solely to receive copies of documents that already exist.
Telephone your state freedom of information or open government officer in the state capitol if you need help. If you do not know which agency in the state or federal government to contact for a copy of the freedom of information law, you should be able to expeditiously obtain a short summary of the state freedom of information law from one of your state legislators and the federal freedom of information law from your Member of Congress. However, you do not have to obtain a copy of the law to write your letter. The important thing is to get started and to realize the basic principles discussed in this brief publication.
The fee for providing copies of documents is likely to be 25 cents per letter- or legal-sized photocopy. Other documents, such as computer disks or prints of large drawings, should be provided at the cost of copying them. Additional search fees my be illegal under various laws. Your letters should be typewritten and sent by "Certified Mail, Return Receipt Requested." If you cannot type, hire a typist to transcribe your hand-written letter.
Another approach is to ask the agency for a list of the categories of information in its fileswhich some states require them to have tabulatedand then to visit the agency by appointment to peruse the files of interest. At that time, you can select the things that you want to have copied.
If you think that more than one agency or more than one office of a single agency, such as a big state or federal agency, could have relevant information, send each office a separately written letter. Sometimes one office will share information that another will not.
A different approach would be to avoid referring to the project by name, if information such as that related to eminent domain is vulnerable to being excluded under the state's freedom of information law. Instead, request all correspondence with or related to a certain developer, consultant, agency, etc. by name, then go on with your list by requesting minutes of certain meetings, by date, etc., and whatever you can think of.
When you appeal a denial of a freedom of information request, include copies of all records of your request, and, at the bottom of your appeal letter, be sure to cc. it to the state office of open government (unless a federal request) appropriate elected officials, specific local newspapers by name, and the Property Rights Foundation of America (with the name of the particular individual and address of each entity). Sometimes it is possible to get a newspaper to write a story about the denial of the initial request, which might put pressure on the appeals officer. If you have no success with the appeal, consider asking your state or federal representative to request the documents. If the formal administrative appeal fails, it is relatively slow and expensive to follow up with a civil lawsuit, even if your legal grounds are good; so apply your best skills during the earlier stages.
Click Here to see the PRFA Freedom of Information Sample Letter. Viewing this letter requires Adobe Acrobat Reader. It is free software for viewing and printing Adobe PDF files. Adobe® Acrobat® Reader is free, and freely distributable, software that lets you view and print Adobe Portable Document Format (PDF) files on all major computer platforms, as well as fill in and submit PDF forms online. If you do not have Acrobat Reader installed on your computer it can be downloaded free by clicking the Acrobat Reader below.
A copy of the PRFA Freedom of Information Request with Sample Letter may also be obtained by writing:
Property Rights Foundation of America, Inc.
P.O. Box 75
Stony Creek, NY 12878
Please enclose a self-addressed, stamped envelope. Thank you.