Editorial: Sunshine law ignored, not understood

Thirteen Virginia newspapers, including the Northern Virginia Daily, recently sent staff members out to police, school and local government offices to request information that is publicly available to any citizen. Requests were made for crime reports, town and county manager salaries and allowances, financial disclosure forms for mayors and county supervisors, and high school principals’ salaries.

How did it go?  A story in Saturday’s paper, which can be viewed online at http://www.nvdaily.com/?p=546260, shows Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act is being ignored by some government employees or they just don’t understand it. Either way, the survey found stumbling blocks thrown up by officials for information that should be provided when requested by citizens as well as reporters.

Some newspaper staff members doing the survey could not get felony police reports that, according to state law, are considered public information.  Staffers were told they didn’t have a good reason for making a request for public records. Others were told there would be a fee for the information.

The newspaper survey was conducted by the 13 papers on Nov. 5. The Northern Virginia Daily staff member who made requests for public documents that day was not a reporter and did not identify herself as a newspaper employee. She visited local government, sheriff’s offices and School Board offices in Shenandoah and Warren counties.  She did not encounter some of the issues that other newspapers reported in the survey. She said county managers for both Warren and Shenandoah county were very helpful, but said she was asked to fill out a request form by Warren County government and the Shenandoah County School Board.

The Northern Virginia Daily’s experiences with FOIA requests have not always been positive. We’ve also run into situations in which our requests come back with a hefty price tag for researching and copying. A few years ago we asked for the salaries of certain school personnel in Warren, Shenandoah and Frederick counties. That information was readily made available for free from Warren and Frederick county school administrators, but Shenandoah County said it would cost several hundred dollars for the same data.

So, to all citizens: You have the right to public information.

To all local government officials: Every citizen has the right to request public information. It does not have to be in writing. A fee can be charged, but it has to be a reasonable amount. They also do not have to give you a reason for the information requested, and you have a specific number of days to respond.

To all citizens and local government officials, including police and public school administrators: Learn more about Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act at http://tinyurl.com/nbdwgn3.

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