Fax Machines, Snail Mail and Transparency in Kentucky

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When Kentuckians try to obtain public documents from state agencies, sometimes a technological relic from the 1990s — a fax machine — comes in handy.

Most agencies will take requests through their websites or by e-mail. Some, however, bask in pre-Digital Age means of communicating with the information-seeking public.

  • The Kentucky Attorney General’s office requires records requests to be sent by mail or fax — and signed. Responses, including simple acknowledgments and denials, are mailed.
  • Likewise, the Kentucky Community & Technical College System takes records requests by mail or fax. Responses are mailed. No fax-backs.
  • The University of Louisville Foundation likes faxes. “The Foundation does not transact its open records business via e-mail,” said records custodian Kenyatta Martin in an e-mail.
  • Although the Kentucky Retirement System accepts requests electronically, it responds by mail. The same goes for Louisville Metro Council.

Kentucky’s open records law doesn’t dictate one form of transmission over another. In 2013, the AG’s office issued a memo saying that records requests “may” — not must — be faxed, mailed or hand-delivered. It also gave agencies the option of not honoring requests sent by e-mail.

Mark Neikirk, executive director of the Scripps Howard Center for Civic Engagement at Northern Kentucky University, said the Kentucky Open Records Act allows for speedy access to records.

“The point of the open records law is to get all the obstructions out of the way,” said Neikirk, former managing editor of the defunct Cincinnati Post and Kentucky Post newspapers. “If you have to put it in writing and wait for them to respond, it would be contrary to the intent of the law.”

Fortunately for the general public, more and more agencies in Kentucky have moved into the 21st century insofar as open records requests go. The University of Louisville and the University of Kentucky accept e-mailed requests, as does the Kentucky Environmental Protection Cabinet, the Health and Family Services Cabinet, the Department of Agriculture, the Department of Revenue, the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission and the Kentucky Registry of Election Finance.

“My rationale for accepting and responding to open records requests electronically is that, with the high volume of the requests the university receives, I feel like I can communicate more quickly and efficiently via e-mail — in most cases,” said Sherri Pawson, who handles records requests for the University of Louisville. “I’m doing a service to the requesters.”

Although fax holdouts persist, Chris Vessels, owner of Total Office Products & Service in Louisville, says his customers have moved on to newer technologies.

“Fax machine sales have been going down the last couple of years,” he said. “We still carry fax machines, but sell very few of them. Most people are doing things via e-mail or some other kind of electronic format.”

Katie Taylor, a Miami University journalism major who spent a summer internship with the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting, had never sent a fax in her life until she sent one for us last June. She was bewildered by the complex, oven-sized Ricoh MP C4503 multi-purpose machine that meets our faxing needs.

“I’d never bothered to learn how to use one because, realistically, I should never need to,” she said. “It’s like a floppy disk — a fossil of my father’s generation.”

The slowness of the fax-and-mail process manifested itself in a recent Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting request to the UofL Foundation. The request was faxed on Nov. 24, and an acknowledgement of the request was e-mailed back on Dec. 1. The response itself, though, didn’t arrive until Dec. 11 — because the certified letter took a 646-mile detour through a Postal Service facility outside Chicago.

Have you ever filed a public records request? What was your experience? Share your issues with technology and Kentucky’s Open Records Act on Twitter: @KentuckyCIR.

4 thoughts on “Fax Machines, Snail Mail and Transparency in Kentucky

  1. An interesting part of how the KRS open data statues are written revolves around the term ‘newspaper.’

    See 61.870 Definitions for KRS 61.872 to 61.884.
    (4) (b) 1.

    “Commercial purpose” shall not include:
    1. Publication or related use of a public record by a newspaper or periodical;

    If you are a newspaper, then that does not constitute a commerical purpose. If you are not using the open data for a commerical purpose, then you don’t have to pay a ‘reasonable fee’ that the agency can determine. These fees can be anywhere from $10 to $10,000 (in my experience) or more.

    So by being a ‘newspaper’, you don’t have to pay for the public data.

    But I do not believe that ‘newspaper’ is defined anywhere in the KRS statues. I guess it’s clear the Courier-Journal is a newspaper. It’s not so clear that KYCIR is a newspaper, being online only (no paper). Is InsiderLouisville.com a newspaper? What about WFPL.org? How about a local blog? What about a non-profit like CivicDataAlliance.org? Or would Everyblock.com be considered a newspaper, since it considered itself data journalism, and was funded and run by journalists?

    James McNair, do you know where newspaper is defined? Who decides when an open records request is made if the requestor gets it for free or has to pay?

    Thanks for the great article.

    • Kentucky agencies can — and do — assess fees, usually 10 cents a page, for the news media, and most treat our web-based news organization as if we were a newpaper or radio or TV station. They can charge more for commercial purposes. (A simple declaration that you don’t intend to use the information for commercial purposes will suffice.) It never hurts to ask that fees be waived. Agencies often do if you’re only asking for a few pages.

      • Thanks Jim.

        I know someone here in town who made an open records request to use the data a non-commerical website (data journalism) and took the rejection to the Attorney General. It was the AG that ruled that the ad-free site was commercial simply because it included content from a third-party site (Trulia), even though the requestor said it was non-commerical. They also ruled it was not a newspaper.

        In the case of an all-digital request (no printed pages, just bulk raw data) there is usually not a cost, right? Certainly not in the thousands of dollar range. I understand the cost for printed pages, as layed out by KRS (unless you are commercial).

        • Some agencies will deny you records to the bitter end and make it as difficult as possible to get them. Your most effective recourse, other than having a powerful friend intervene on your behalf, is to file suit. Politicians know you will be likely disinclined to do so. It takes a determined, deep-pocketed person to pursue these things. I can’t speak to bulk data requests, but can say that I’ve received state docs on CD without being charged.