Tri-City Herald reporters used Washington's Public Records Act to obtain public documents with nearly two dozen written requests in 2010.
The Herald asked about claims for damages against cities and counties, for reports on a fatal traffic accident on I-182, to unseal court records in two homicide trials, and for reports about a sexual abuse case investigation in Prosser involving a former mayor.
But reporters obtained far more information informally from public agencies, asking either in-person, by telephone and by e-mail. No written requests were required.
Police accident and incident reports, monthly building permits, public meeting agendas, periodic financial reports, planning records, civil and criminal court records and memos sent to members of commissions, boards and councils can be handed over without a written request if the public agency chooses to, said David Sparks, Benton County administrator.
"It is just easier to say, 'Here it is.' Any time we can make our information open to the public it helps the public as well as us. The Public Records Act has made us aware of the need to do that," Sparks said.
Using the internet to provide access to public information can be more efficient, however.
"A lot of the time people make public records requests not realizing the information is on our website. We end up walking people through our (geographic information system) and Virtual Kennewick website," said Valerie Loffler, Kennewick's city clerk.
"Quite a bit of information is available that doesn't require a public records request," she said.
But those requests for records can turn up major findings.
The Herald has used formal public records requests in several major stories, including:
* To expose illegal meetings conducted by the Kennewick Public Facilities District. (2004)
* To collect information that led to two Kennewick attorneys being convicted for soliciting and taking money illegally from defendants in exchange for getting criminal charges dismissed. (2006)
* To document the highest-paid employees in public agencies. (2007)
* To investigate allegations of favoritism in tire recycling contracts that led to former state Rep. Shirley Hankins getting the then-largest fine from an ethics investigation. (2007)
* To examine the Kennewick Irrigation District's 10 years of troubles involving managers and board members. (2008)
* To expose internal issues and sloppy investigative work done by the Pasco Police Department that preceded the transfer of oversight of the Tri-City Metro Drug Task Force to the Kennewick Police Department. (2009)