• Pensacola News Journal (Florida)
    Those public records belong to you
    March 21, 2014

    Editor’s note: To celebrate Sunshine Week, we’re publishing columns from across the state regarding open government. Others can be found at fsne.org.

    This is the week that newspapers across the country write stories about public records and the difficulty they have in getting the records from various agencies.

    It is called Sunshine Week and it is celebrated this year from March 16-22, 2014.

    There is a very good reason newspapers are interested in public records. Public records are the backbone for many stories. Journalists use them frequently. If you look closely at newspaper articles and read between the lines, you will see how much of the information was generated through public records.

    But public records can also benefit you.

    If you are a young lady, you may think twice about seeing a psychiatrist who has been disciplined for sexual misconduct. If you are a recovering alcoholic, you may be reluctant to see a doctor who has been disciplined for substance abuse. If you are a mother, you may shy away from taking your child to a doctor who has a record of misprescribing drugs to children.

    These are just examples of public records in regard to health care providers. Other examples of public records are lawsuits, criminal records, marriage and divorce records, property records and records of what your local city officials are up to at City Hall. “Public records” are generally defined across the country as records regardless of their physical form (so email would be included) made or received in connection with the transaction of official business by any government agency.

    Using the public records law in your state, you can find out if your doctor meets your requirements. It’s simpler than you think. Go to your state’s board of medicine. Ask them if the doctor has ever been disciplined and if so, ask them to provide you a copy of the records.

    Go to your County Clerk of Court and ask them if your prospective doctor has any criminal records or lawsuits filed against him.

    Most public agencies are polite and helpful and follow the law, and will give you your public records upon request. Some agencies have attorneys guarding the hen house who are reluctant to hand over records. Luckily, this is rare, so just persist and you will eventually obtain the public records you seek.

    Public records are not just for journalists and their stories. They are public records. That means they belong to you!

    Keep in mind, you may be charged a nominal fee for these records. But your peace of mind is worth it.

    Good luck in your search for public records.

    Happy Sunshine Week!

    Ken Kramer is a public records researcher and freelance investigative journalist.