How do I request records when I don't know what records exist?

Sometimes I get questions from readers that I think may be of general interest. Here is one such question and my response to it.

Question:

The county in which I reside owns and operates a miniature golf course. The Freeholder Director claims that the course is making money and doing well, but I'm not so sure. When I attempted to OPRA the golf course's income and expense records from the County, I am told that the records I seek do not exist, that the county is under no responsibility to create records for me or that my request is too broad. Since I don't know the records that the county keeps and how it arranges them, it is difficult if not impossible for me to request them. What do I do?

Answer:

Unfortunately, some government agencies take advantage of requestors by forcing them to play a game of blind man's bluff. It's a frustrating problem.

I've had some success with the form of request that is set forth below. As you can see, it contains a preemptive "background" element explaining: a) the requestor's goal in making the request, b) that the requestor doesn't (and shouldn't be expected to) know exactly which records would help him or her reach that goal, and c) reminding the agency that OPRA intends for records custodians and requestors to cooperate with one another.

The receiving agency, or its attorney, usually realize that anything less than a full and cooperative response to such a candid request will likely be viewed by a Superior Court judge or the Government Records Council as being evasive and mean-spirited.

John Paff, Chair
New Jersey Libertarian Party's
Open Government Advocacy Project


Background:

The Freeholder Director recently said that the the county's miniature golf course is doing well and making money. I would like to test the veracity of that claim by examining the records of the golf course's income and expenses. I don't know which records the county keeps, so it's difficult for me--an ordinary citizen with no training in governmental accounting--to frame this request. Therefore, I am requesting the following, specific records. If the requested records are not available or are difficult for you to produce, I ask that you recommend which records I should request so that I can accomplish my goal of verifying the income and expenses related to the golf course in a manner that is least expensive and cumbersome for both me and the county.

I remind you that the New Jersey Supreme Court has stated that the Open Public Records Act (OPRA) "is designed both to promote prompt access to government records and to encourage requestors and agencies to work together toward that end by accommodating one another." - Mason v. City of Hoboken, 196 N.J. 51, 78 (2008).

Records requested:

I request these records pursuant to both OPRA and the common law right of access.

For the period beginning July 1, 2009 and ending June 30, 2010:

  1. Statements or other writings that show the amount of income received that is attributable to the golf course.
  2. Purchase orders evidencing any moneys, except salaries and insurance, disbursed on account of the golf course.
  3. Any record that discloses the amount of insurance premium attributable to the golf course.
  4. Wage and salary records for any employees whose work is exclusively for the golf course.
  5. Wage and salary records for any employees whose work is partially for the golf course.