Know Your Rights: Public Records and Information

Published: Dec. 13, 2018 at 6:20 PM AKST
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Curious which dog names are the most popular? Or how your neighborhood school rates?

Here's how to be a citizen sleuth.

Alaska favors citizen involvement in — and oversight of — its government. State laws give citizens rights to a lot of information. But to get it, you need to know where to find it, and who to talk to.

As lawyer John McKay points out, "The legislature has said this is a fundamental right."

Public records give everyday citizens the power to hold the powerful accountable.

"When we elect people, when we appoint people to run government for us, we are delegating authority to them but we are not giving them a right to decide what's good for us and what's not good for us to know," McKay told KTUU in a recent interview.

Alaska's public records law clearly states that public access to government information is "a fundamental right," one that operates to "check and balance" the actions of elected and appointed officials, and to "maintain citizen control of government."

"The government affects every aspect of our lives," McKay said.

Everything from popular dog names to crime reports, business licenses, school performance, road construction plans, property records, restaurant and daycare inspections, local and state government meetings — and a lot of other things that affect your day — can be obtained.

Some are available online. Others require written requests or in-person visits.

A reliable go-to? City clerks.

"We're here to help," Anchorage Municipal Clerk Barbara Jones told KTUU.

From elections to assembly meetings, her office is a wealth of information.

"We are here to help the public get connected to local government," she said.

One of her top public information picks is the

page. It lists upcoming meetings and agendas, and also houses links to past meetings, including minutes, audio and video.

The Anchorage Municipal Clerk's Office can be reached at (907) 343-4321, or on Facebook or Twitter @ancmuniclerk.

Regarding fees, McKay notes that "the legislature has said that the first five hours in any calendar month of search and copying costs are free for any person requesting public records."

Also, rates for research and copying should be reasonable.

"They can't use their copying machine as a profit center," he said.

Often times, agencies or departments will ask you to fill out a written records request form. When making the request, you should not have to say why you want the material.

If you can't find what you need, ask the records custodian for advice on where to locate what you're looking for.

If your request is denied, ask the agency to be specific about why it was declined or wasn't able to fulfill your request. If you want to challenge the decision, you'll need to do it quickly and in writing.

Helpful Links:

by John McKay for the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

— On this page you can find data on restaurant and childcare inspections, homelessness, property data, crime data, maps and dog names.