By Alex Bridges -- firstname.lastname@example.org
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.