Managing Vague and Overly Broad Public Records Requests

In Ohio, public agencies are required to make many of their working documents available for public inspection or copying upon request. The Ohio Public Records Act makes it clear that, with few exceptions, the public records process must be both transparent and timely. Public agencies are frequently asked to balance their limited resources with their duties under the law. But when a public records request arrives that seems vague or unreasonable, public agencies need to know their rights as well as their obligations.

Under Ohio law, if a public agency cannot respond to a request because it is too broad or vague, they must notify the requester and give them a chance to revise the request before denying it. But what happens if the requester doesn’t know the document they’re looking for? A simple and effective way to help them narrow down their search is to provide them with a copy of the public agency’s Records Retention Schedule, or RC2 form. The RC2 should show exactly what categories of records are kept and the length for which they are kept. By law, all public agencies are required to have a master list of the public records they maintain, as well as how long they keep them before disposal.

When requests arrive that are worded so broadly or vaguely that there’s no way to reconcile them, a timely and clear response to the requester will go a long way. That will establish a record that the agency met its obligation to notify the requester. Often some requests arrive that are multi-layered and contain multiple sub-parts. It may not be possible to write out all the agency’s questions and requests for clarifications within a reasonable time period. But even a general notice, coupled with a request for clarification to the requester, shows that the public agency is acting in good faith and working toward a version of the request that it can fulfill.

Case law suggests that public records requests are not invalid just because they ask for a large volume of documents. At the same time, courts recognize that larger requests justify a longer response time. The earlier the agency can determine how reasonable a request is, the more options it will have for how to respond or defend its decision to deny the request. Public records training sessions with staff members who may be locating responsive documents will reduce the risk of internal confusion and delay.

Keeping these tips in mind when responding to a request will help ensure you can get responsive documents in the hands of the requester without straining your resources. Be sure to discuss specific concerns about public records requests with your agency’s legal counsel.

John Mills is an attorney at Walter | Haverfield who has extensive experience with public records requests and works with our firm’s Public Law and Education Law practice groups. He can be reached at jmills@walterhav.com or at 216-619-7852.