Front Royal collects thousands of dollars each year to fulfill requests for mostly public information that can amount to tens of thousands of documents.
But town employees can spend hundreds of hours poring through paperwork, emails, reports and other documents to find the information as requested.
Town Attorney Douglas Napier spoke this week to the Town Council and provided members a basic overview of the Virginia Freedom of Information Act. The town received 91 FOIA requests in the first 19 days of the year, Napier said. The attorney estimated that, at that rate, the town could receive 1,700-1,800 requests this calendar year. Napier did not have the number of requests the town received in 2020.
A request at the end of last year prompted the attorney to talk to council members about FOIA. The requester asked for documents related to the town’s lawsuit against the Front Royal-Warren County Economic Development Authority. The request involves almost 80,000 documents. However, Warren County Circuit Court had issued a blanket order keeping those documents under wraps as part of a special grand jury investigation into the misuse or embezzlement of EDA funds, Napier said. The town was threatened with a lawsuit if it did not release the documents but contempt of court if it did, Napier said.
A more recent request resulted in the collection of almost 15,000 documents, Napier said. Some documents did not appear connected to the request because of its broad scope, Napier said.
The law dictates what information and documents local governments must provide to anyone who makes a request. The law also lists many exemptions that allow a local government or other public agency to voluntarily withhold from the requester. A person does not have to invoke FOIA when making a request. Some local governments ask that requests be submitted via a form although FOIA does not require that requests be made in writing.
Front Royal receives hundreds of requests each year for information such as documents, reports and email correspondence. The town recently received 19 individual requests in a 91-day period, Napier said.
“Some of them are relatively simple,” Napier said of the requests. “Some of them are massive.”
Employees went into the town computer servers to fulfill one information request and determined they would need to go through 75,000-85,000 documents, Napier recalled.
Town attorneys often must examine each document in a request related to investigative matters to see what they can release and what they must redact or withhold to comply with privacy requirements, Napier explained. Such information the town must withhold relates to utility bills, security protection, health privacy regulations and other sensitive matters, he added, noting that town employees can end up in criminal trouble if they release such information, he said.
The town doesn’t usually charge fees for requests that take little staff time to fulfill, Napier said. However, he explained that FOIA does allow local governments to charge fees based on the hourly pay rate of the employees involved in fulfilling the request and the time it takes to produce the information.
The Northern Virginia Daily submitted a request earlier this month for information and documents related to the Happy Creek tree removal project. The town’s analysis showed it would take eight employees 15 hours to fulfill the request at a cost of $887.
The town generally charges for any request that would cost more than $250 at an employee’s hourly pay rate, Napier said.
“We don’t like to charge for it,” Napier said. “We’re a government. We don’t operate in secrecy.
“Town folks, county folks, are our neighbors, they’re our friends,” Napier went on to say. “We like to know what’s going on. I like to know what’s going on. You like to know what’s going on.”
But, at some point, the town needs to charge fees when, for example, someone asks for 70,000, 80,000 documents and it takes employees 500 hours to fulfill, Napier said. It’s not fair to taxpayers to not charge for the request, he added.
“I hate to say, but we’ve had some people (make requests) simply to harass and 99.99% of the requests are not that,” Napier said.
In response to questions from council members, Napier said anyone can also ask the town to provide how many information requests it received and how much it charged for those inquiries.
But Councilman Joseph McFadden questioned how the town can charge for requests at employees’ hourly pay rates if the staff member performs the work during normal business hours. McFadden asked if the town is “double-billing the public.”
“It’s statutory,” Napier said.
Mayor Christopher W. Holloway added that the town charges because requests could tie up employees who also need to tend to other town business.
Councilman E. Scott Lloyd cited FOIA language that prohibits the town from charging extraneous fees in excess of the actual costs to fulfill requests. Napier said this is why the town doesn’t charge to fulfill less extensive requests.