How much time does an authority have to respond to my public records request?
Answer: Wisconsin public records law does not require an authority to respond to a public record request within a certain timeframe, such as one week, 10 days, or one month. The law says that an authority shall fill or deny a request “as soon as practicable and without delay.” As you can imagine, this leaves room for interpretation.
The Wisconsin Supreme Court has said that a reasonable amount of time to respond to a public records request depends on a number of factors. The factors include the nature of the request, the staff and resources available to process the request, the extent of the request, and other related considerations. In short, how long an authority has to respond to a request depends. Ten business days may be a reasonable response time for a simple request seeking a limited number of records that are easy to identify. However, as the Court has said, sometimes an authority can be swamped with public records requests and may need a substantial time to respond to a request.
An authority should take care to make responding to public records requests a priority. While there are many circumstances that can delay a response, an authority should make every reasonable effort to respond to requests in a timely fashion and in a way that does not leave the requester wondering if the authority has forgotten about his or her request. It is advisable for an authority to send an acknowledgment letter upon receipt of a public records request. The Office of Open Government also encourages maintaining an open line of communication between an authority and the requester. This helps avoid confusion or misunderstandings as to the status of a request.
It is worth noting that the public records law only requires an authority to respond to a requester if they fulfill or deny a response. The law does not require that an authority notify a requester in the event that the requested records do not exist. However, the OOG advises that an authority notify a requester if this is the case.
The bottom line is that authorities should make a good faith effort to respond to requests without undue delay and to communicate with the requester about the process. While the demands on authority staff can present challenges, authorities should take steps to ensure the public’s right of access remains a priority.