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Experts: FOIA tracking not out of bounds

By Alex Bridges -- abridges@nvdaily.com

The motive behind Shenandoah County supervisors' inquiry into information requests the government fielded the past few months -- and how they might use the data -- remains unknown.

Representatives for two state watchdog agencies say the supervisors have a right to track requests -- so long as they don't use that information to deter people from making requests in the future.

The Board of Supervisors on Tuesday asked County Administrator Douglas Walker to provide members with details on the number of requests departments have received, including those sought through the state Freedom of Information Act.

Supervisors at the meeting questioned the cost incurred by the county to respond and fulfill these requests. The county had received over several months requests for information on the Rappahannock-Shenandoah-Warren Regional Jail project in Warren County. Supervisor Sharon Baroncelli criticized those people who requested what she called old information already available to the public.

Aside from private residents, the Daily made requests for information through FOIA seeking three months of correspondence the county sent and received regarding the jail. The request resulted in the county providing hundreds of pages of emails -- not publicly available -- on the topic.

The Virginia Freedom of Information Advisory Council keeps watch on FOIA compliance. But as a staff attorney for the council explained, a governing body can examine the costs involved with FOIA requests and address policies if desired.

"If all they're doing is tracking FOIA requests, that's fine," said Alan Gernhart. "That's just keeping abreast of what's going on.

"On the other hand, if they're going to use that information ... as a witch hunt -- if they're going to suddenly say 'well, this person makes more requests than anyone else, we're going to start charging them more," Gernhart said. "That would certainly be a problem."

The Virginia Coalition for Open Government does hear about local government officials feeling overwhelmed by FOIA requests, according to spokeswoman Megan Rhyne, who stated in an email that this often happens when an issue draws public interest.

Governments must fulfill requests for certain types of information not exempted under FOIA, Rhyne explained.

"And like other services, there will be times when filling FOIA requests will take up a bigger proportion of staff time than others," Rhyne states. "And vice-versa: there will be times when there are no FOIA requests to fill. It's all part of the ebb and flow of government service, and no one should be penalized for seeking records that will help keep them informed and help them keep their government accountable."

Governments can charge for filling FOIA requests but the statute specifically states the price given for such task must remain reasonable and reflect the "actual cost" of providing the service, Rhyne states. The attorney noted that a government may, but does not have to charge, for filling FOIA requests.

FOIA has fallen under attack in the past. According to Rhyne, attempts have been made to create legislation to allow government to seek injunctions against anyone who files "too many" FOIA requests. Those attempts have failed, Rhyne stated.

Neighboring county governments receive requests for information, sometimes through FOIA. Jay Tibbs, deputy administrator for Frederick County, said he usually doesn't charge if a request for information or documents amounts to 10 pages. Tibbs said he also will refer people to the county's website if the information they seek is available there. The website, for instance, features documents and minutes from supervisors' meetings which people often request.

Warren County administration currently does not track the volume of FOIA requests. County Administrator Douglas Stanley said many of the government offices handle their own requests. County policy is to charge 25 cents per page for copies and, if needed, to bill for staff time at the rate of pay of the individual involved in filling the request, according to Stanley.


The Shenandoah County Board of Supervisor’s should be asking themselves “Why is there such an increase in FOIA requests? Why the sudden public interest in how they are governing? Clearly, they are intimidated by all these requests. Directing Walker to collect a list of who requested what information, doesn’t make sense to me, but nothing this board has done in regards to borrowing, building, and spending over the last three to five years has made any sense to me either. Let me remind the county board, FOIA means FREEDOM of Information Act, it is not a service they “have” to provide it is “THE LAW” they have to follow. Maybe they should consult “their” taxpayer funded attorney about the difference.

Ah-ha!! You figured it out! It's the grand FOIA conspiracy. Obviously if any elected official asks a question about the amount of FOIA requests being handled it's evidence of them being intimidated and trying to hide something. Keep digging, I'm sure Hoffa is there somewhere.

The old Hoffa "jokes" are rather outdated and overused by now. Got anything new? Why are so many people worried about questioning our little elected officials?

Cindy Bailey is one of the few people who bothers to stand up to these people. Why does it bug you and so many others? Maybe it reminds you of your complacency.

Don't worry your head about it Sword. Just follow the pack and do as you are told. Oh and keep paying those taxes, the WIZARDS know what's best for us common folk.

The Free Press ran an article this week titled "Debating the Public's Right to Know".

The last paragraph shows another attempt by the Shenandoah County Board of Supervisors to silence, intimidate and interfere with free speech.

It reads:
But it wasn’t just the FOIA issue that has aroused Baroncelli’s ire lately. She has tired of public backlash against the board and wants better comportment at public meetings.
A few months ago she lamented that many citizens speaking to the board were loud and rude. She wants to tone down the rhetoric.
Baroncelli said Tuesday that Jay Litten, the county government’s attorney, is preparing guidelines for conduct. How those guidelines will be implemented is not yet known.

What’s good for the goose, is good for the gander.

I have attended exactly one Shenandoah County Board of Supervisors public meeting and observed disrespect is not a one-way street.

If Supervisor Baroncelli has directed County Attorney Litten to prepare conduct guidelines for citizens who speak before the Board of Supervisors, may I suggest citizens prepare conduct guidelines for observance by the Supervisors?

I suggest conduct rule number one prohibit the ‘rolling of eyes’ as nonverbal commenting by a Supervisor who disagrees with a citizen addressing the Board.

I suggest conduct rule number two prohibit the creation of mutual ‘smirking smiles’ when one Supervisor turns to face his neighbor while a citizen is addressing the Board.

I suggest conduct rule number three prohibit Supervisors chewing gum or mindlessly rocking in his chair while a citizen is addressing the Board.

I suggest conduct rule number four prohibit Supervisors ‘playing’ with their cell phones or other personal electronic devices during the Public Presentations portion of the Meeting Agenda.

I suggest conduct rule number five require a Supervisor to give his full, undivided attention to a citizen who is addressing the Board.

Very well written, Tess. It should be a condition of being allowed to stay in office. Voted in by the people, work for the people. If not,we should be able to remove them fom office. Just like any job,Verbal Warning,Written Warning then Terminated. We should not have to wait to vote.

Oh Diana, if your posts would only reflect something that falls in line with some facts instead of emotional rhetoric they would almost be amusing. I can't tell if you think for yourself or are just completely blinded by the rants of lunacy.

Tess on the other hand has some valid points. It should be a two way street. I've watched Baroncelli act like a spoiled brat in other meetings. Sometimes I almost could see her saying, "I'm taking my toys and going home!" as she stomps her feet to the door. HahahahLOL.

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