Government, schools ask for requests in writing

Some local government and school divisions might have violated state law over access to information.

The Northern Virginia Daily participated with other newspapers in a statewide effort to gauge how well government agencies complied with the Virginia Freedom of Information Act and provided basic information and documents.

Daily staff member Tina Comer made requests in person at government administration and school board offices as well as to sheriffs in Shenandoah and Warren counties. Comer’s reports indicate that she received the information or documents as requested with no problems.

However, in two instances, Comer was told to provide her requests in writing. The Shenandoah County School Board office and the Warren County administration required Comer to complete a FOIA request form that she then submitted.

FOIA does not require that any particular form be used to make a request, or even that a request be made in writing, Alan Gernhardt, staff attorney for the FOIA Advisory Council, said Wednesday. A public body may provide a form for convenience but it cannot require a requester to use it, Gernhardt explained. The advisory council Executive Director Maria K. Everett also issued an opinion in 2011 that touched on this subject.

Shenandoah County Public Schools Superintendent Jeremy Raley said Wednesday the division processes information requests over the telephone, via fax and email along with those submitted on the form.

“If the requester would have said, ‘I’m not filling out the form but I want the information’ we still certainly would have processed (the request) with that information,” Raley said. “We have the ability when we take a phone call or an email to transcribe that and put it on the form. When folks fill out the form, great, but it’s not a requirement that they fill out the form.”

Comer faced a similar experience when requesting data from Warren County. In her report, Comer states that she received information or records as requested from the Warren County administration. Comer states the office workers were familiar with FOIA requirements and forwarded the request to the county attorney. Shelley Hayes, senior office associate, asked Comer to make a request for the information in writing, the report states. The form then was forwarded to the county attorney. Comer later received the requested information.

Comer adds that Hayes advised her that she might need to pay a fee for the information but did not charge her when she picked up the documents the following week.

Comer also requested and received information from the Warren County Public Schools office without issue.

Comer asked for information from the Warren County Sheriff’s Office. Comer states that she did not see anyone in person but spoke to a staff member via a telephone in the waiting area. Comer states she received the information as requested and none of it appeared withheld.

In Shenandoah County, Comer states she received all the documents requested. Comer spoke with County Administrator Mary T. Price who she described as “very helpful.” Price did not ask Comer to pay a fee for the information. Price also provided salaries that other area county administrators earn, Comer notes.

Comer also requested information from the Shenandoah County School Board office. Comer states she spoke with Cheryl Hedrick and Betty Laughlin in the office. Comer notes that it took a little while for office workers to find the FOIA request forms that she needed to complete. Raley then sent Comer the information via email, she notes.

Comer asked for and received documents from the Shenandoah County Sheriff’s Office. A deputy spoke with Comer and told her the office makes the information she wanted available on the agency’s website and on Facebook.

At no time did anyone ask Comer why she wanted the information or for whom she worked, her reports state.

Contact staff writer Alex Bridges at 540-465-5137 ext. 125, or abridges@nvdaily.com

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