Do Your Research
Now let’s get started!
First things first:
Whether you’re challenging a bad proposed policy, reforming a harmful policy or supporting a good proposed policy, start gathering information. Go to the city’s website and obtain a copy of the ordinance that has been proposed. If it is not listed on your city’s website, call the city clerk and ask for a copy. If she is unable to help you, contact the sponsor’s office. The sponsor is the elected official who introduced the legislation.
You will also need to know what the current law says. Do some digging in the city’s code or state statutes. Most cities send you to an external site called Municode: www.municode.com. Make sure you have obtained all sections of the law that apply to you; they may appear in multiple areas. Sometimes this information can be difficult to find. Call the clerk’s office if you need help. Trying to get information out of your local government can be frustrating, but don’t be discouraged. Be polite, persistent and courteous—even if you are not shown the same respect.
If you heard about a proposed law in the news, collect news clippings. This will help you assess the motivation behind the change, and help you identify everybody involved—your supporters and your opposition. If you have trouble obtaining information from city hall or your state legislature, you can contact the journalist who has reported on the issue.
At some point, now or later, you may choose to submit a Freedom of Information Act or Law (FOIA or FOIL) or Open Public Records Act (OPRA) request to the city or state to obtain information that is not readily available to the public.
A FOIA, FOIL or OPRA request is simple. Usually it should say, “Pursuant to [your state’s freedom of information law], I request the following information:”
Your state may have a website where you can obtain information about how to submit one of these requests. Be very specific about what information you want. List the ordinance numbers or names of proposed legislation. If you live in a large city or you are requesting information from the state, it’s often a good idea to call the clerk first to identify the person to whom you should send your request. That will help your request get answered more quickly. In a small town, that probably won’t be necessary. Your request can be sent to the municipality itself or, if you know the agency that has the information, you may be able to send it to the agency directly.
Check your state’s law to see how much time the government has to fulfill your request; this can range anywhere from three days to “a reasonable amount of time.” If the government does not respond within 10 to 15 days, follow up and specifically ask if your request is being denied (and for a written reason why) or, if it is not being denied, when you can expect to receive it. If an agency requests an extension of time, make sure to get the request in writing with the reason for the extension and the new deadline.
The office you have submitted your request to may be completely unresponsive. In many states, you can appeal either to the head of the agency or to a FOIA oversight office (before taking it to court). This is a good way to apply pressure to an unresponsive agency or office.
There may be a cost associated with the fulfillment of your request (e.g., shipping or copying fees). Request to know what these fees are before the agency proceeds to send you the responses to your request. Being as specific as possible can help keep costs down. But it may be the case that you don’t know what documents the agency does and does not have; talking to someone on the phone at the agency can help you tailor your request, thereby lessening the costs. If you live near the capitol or city hall, you should be able to inspect the documents in person, if the cost of fulfillment is prohibitive.
After you collect the information you need, clearly identify the problem that you are facing and define a solution.