Journalists often request public records as part of their jobs, but anyone can do it.
Court records. Government salary databases. Policies. Reports. Budgets. All that information and more can be requested by the public.
In Kansas, public records can be requested under the Kansas Open Records Act. All records of public government bodies within the state are available to the public unless otherwise specified with an exemption.
The Kansas Open Records Act only applies to the state of Kansas. Meanwhile, the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) is a separate federal law that applies to federal records. It’s best not to use the term FOIA when making requests to state or local governments.
Interested in filing your own public records request in Wichita or Sedgwick County?
The Wichita Beacon has put together a guide for requesting public records — including whom to contact, when they’re required to respond and what records might be closed by law.
- What are you looking for?
- How to file a record request
- What are the response deadlines?
- How much does a records request cost?
- Records closed by law
- Sample email templates to records custodians
- Our stories based on public records requests
What are you looking for?
Step one of any open records request is to figure out what you’re looking for. The more specific your request, the better.
Here are some examples of records you can request from the city of Wichita and Sedgwick County:
- City Council and County Commission minutes
- Emails between City Council members, County Commission members and/or government officials
- Government salary databases
How to file a record request
To file a public records request in Kansas, find the records custodian of the department or agency you’re requesting information from.
A records custodian is the person in charge of fulfilling the request, and addressing your request to them will get quicker results.
State agencies also have records custodians. For example, the Kansas State Department of Education custodian can be found here. If it’s not online, email or call the department and ask for the custodian’s name and contact information.
If you know the name of the records you’re requesting, like a specific report or document, use that name in your request. If you know the general subject, but not what it’s called within the department, provide a clear explanation of what you’re looking for and ask that the custodian call you if there is any confusion regarding your request.
Provide multiple means to contact you, including your email and phone number. You can request that records be sent to your email or that you receive physical copies by mail. It’s best to provide requests in writing so that there’s proof of when you made the request and what it was for.
The city of Wichita offers an online records request portal where you can submit a request to any city department. The portal will provide updates on the status of your request, and you can communicate with the records custodian through the portal.
What are the response deadlines?
In Kansas, records custodians have three business days from the time they receive a request to acknowledge it. Acknowledging the request simply means responding and confirming that they received it; actual fulfillment of the request generally takes longer.
You can ask for an estimate of how long it will take to fulfill the request. Time estimates can range dramatically depending on the kind and breadth of records requested. Records custodians may also ask for an extension past the time they initially promised, which is allowed under law.
If a promised deadline comes and goes without results, reach out to the records custodian using the same email chain you started initially. Remind them of the promised deadline, how long you’ve been waiting and your desire to get the documents as quickly as possible.
How much does a records request cost?
Agencies may charge for the work required to produce and replicate the records.
In Kansas, state law permits charging “reasonable” fees for providing public records. This can include staff time spent on the record request.
The city of Wichita lays out its fee schedule here. The city charges $6 for every 15 minutes staff spends on a record request.
Just because an agency sends you a charge does not mean you have to immediately agree to pay the estimated amount. Ask for an itemized receipt explaining the charges for each document. In many cases, you can haggle your way into a cheaper records request — or get them for free.
You may also request a fee waiver. Journalists often request waivers because they intend to use the records in a story for the public interest. While records custodians do not have to grant a waiver, asking never hurts.
Records closed by law
Some government records are protected by law. Records containing an individual’s medical history, for example, are protected under privacy laws. Contracts between an agency and a company that contain proprietary information can also be deemed confidential.
The full scope of records that can be kept confidential is explained within the Kansas Open Records Act. Here is a list of records that are exempt from being made public in Kansas.
If a records custodian refuses to hand over records, ask them to cite the portion of the law that allows for it. If they can’t, the records are rightfully yours — it just may take pointing that fact out to get them.
Sample email template to records custodians
Make a copy or copy/paste the following template to start your own record request:
Wichita Beacon stories based on public records requests
Here are some examples of how we’ve used public records in our stories:
- A 15-year-old’s suicide while in Kansas foster care came amid a shortfall in mental health care November 27, 2023
- Kansas regulators give Evergy a smaller electrical rate hike than it asked for November 21, 2023
- Two killings, two very different cash bonds — and a debate about fairness in Wichita November 15, 2023