Your Right to Know: Freedom of Information in Nebraska
By Steve White, Grand Island Bureau Chief - bio | email
Done in by a paper trail, Rick Sheehy was on his way to becoming Nebraska's next governor. Until the Omaha World-Herald asked for his phone records, showing a pattern of indiscretions.
But you don't have to work for a major media organization. In Nebraska, we all have the right to know.
From the utilities board to the city council, if you've elected them, you have a right to show up at their meetings...
And in many cases, you have a right to speak your mind.
Hastings College Associate Professor Sharon Brooks says it's often not the big issues, but little ones people care about.
"Places where it's most important, people have access to information closest to home - things in our lives every day - cities and towns," she said.
In Nebraska, anyone can walk into a government office and see the agenda or minutes to a meeting. And anyone, not just officials, lawyers, and journalists can request all sorts of documents created in the course of doing public business.
Brooks said more and more people are doing just that.
"It's a First Amendment for everyone and this day and age a lot of people who are very interested as individuals or bloggers or interested in a particular issue, vastest interest perhaps in legislation have a right to look at public documents as well."
At any level of government, one document more than most is subject to scrutiny from anyone who wants to dig in.
"Budgets are blueprints for what really means most to people," Brooks said. "You can have laws and rules and resolutions but we're learned over the years, where the money goes is where people put priorities."
How to Make a Public Records Request
So you'd like to make a public records request? It's easy to get started.
The simplest way is to type a letter to the branch of local government where you're looking for information.
It may look something like this:
Dear ________, [branch of local government] Based on Neb. Rev. Stat §§84-712, I am making a public records request to inspect or obtain copies of ___________. [enter a description of the records you are seeking here] If there are fees associated with making photo copies, please notify me if they exceed $____. If you deny any or all of this request, please cite each specific exemption that you feel justifies the refusal to release the information and notify me of the relief available under the law.
Officials have four business days to respond.
They can withhold student and medical records. Also, if it's part of a lawsuit, it's off limits.
Otherwise, you can request everything from 911 calls to salaries. Even the lieutenant governor's phone records are fair game.
And Sharon Brooks says public records are often where active citizens can get to the bottom of issues they're passionate about.
"What's in the minutes, what's on the agenda, who's coming before a body to talk to them and I think very important, what sorts of information they provide in addition to agenda items because it's in that background information you can find details," she said.
NTV is putting local government to the test. Watch our series "Your Right to Know" on Wednesday to see how each of the tri-cities responded to requests for information large and small.
Tuesday night, we'll take a look at the treasure trove of information freely available on the Internet about your community and even your home.