Missouri and Kansas both have laws allowing for the request and release of public documents. (Photo illustration/Canva)

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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 Missouri, public records can be requested under the Missouri Sunshine Law. All records of public government bodies within the state are available to the public unless otherwise specified with an exemption. 

Kansas has a similar law, called the Kansas Open Records Act

Both the Missouri Sunshine Law and the Kansas Open Records Act only apply to their respective states. These are separate laws from the Freedom of Information Act, which only apply 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 Missouri or Kansas? 

The Kansas City 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.

How to file a record request

To file a public records request in Missouri or Kansas, find the records custodian of the department you’re requesting information from. 

A records custodian is the person who is in charge of fulfilling the request, and addressing your request to them will get quicker results. 

Some departments have their records custodians listed online; the custodian contact information for the Missouri Department of Corrections, for example, can be found here. If it’s not online, email or call the department and ask for the custodian’s name and contact information. 

When writing your request, be as specific as you can. This will help the custodian understand exactly what records you’re looking for. 

If you know the name of the records you’re requesting, use that name in your request. For example, if it’s a specific report or document. 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.

Kansas City, Missouri, offers an online records request portal where you can submit a request to any of the city’s departments. The portal will keep you updated on the status of your request, and you can send requests for more detailed updates through the portal as well.

What are the response deadlines?

In both Missouri and 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 back 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?

Departments may charge for the work required to produce and replicate the records. 

In Missouri, departments are required to have the lowest hourly paid employee do the work, and they can charge an hourly rate for that work. In cases where documents must be redacted by legal professionals before release, these hourly rates can get expensive.

Just because an agency sends you a charge does not mean you have to immediately agree to pay the amount they’ve estimated. 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 Missouri Sunshine Law and the Kansas Open Records Act. Before you send a request, read through the exceptions to your state’s law and ensure that you’re not requesting confidential information.

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 templates to records custodians

Make a copy or copy/paste the following templates to start your own record request in your state:

Missouri

Kansas

Beacon stories based on public records requests

Here are some examples of how we’ve used public records in our stories:

Burned out: KC paramedics piled on overtime through pandemic

These neighborhoods haven’t given input on Kansas City’s future — that’s a problem

Salons. Grocery stores. Thousands of complaints against Kansas City businesses related to COVID-19.

Wide-ranging policies give Kansas and Missouri cops discretion for violence

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Emily Wolf is a local government accountability reporter with a focus on telling meaningful stories through data at The Kansas City Beacon. She is a Report for America corps member.