Strategies for finding and using public information

By Dave Ress

For the record (as we like to say).

We call it the Freedom of Information Act in Virginia, but it’s good to remember that it’s about information that’s in a public record or revealed in a public meeting.

One thing that can really help get information, as Cherise Newsome points out in her excellent post, is talking to the FOIA compliance officer about what you’re trying to find out.

There’s another bit of research that can be worth doing before you actually make a FOIA request for records. That’s to try to find out what kind of records a public body keeps.

There’s nothing like a FOIA request that asks for copies of the quarterly reports about Whatever filed on Form  37-1A to speed a response and make it easier for government officials to do what most want and all are supposed to do: make information available.

So, for instance, if I were interested in child day care centers, I’d take a peek at the forms license applicants need to file. Looking at them, it’s clear that the agency looks at, and has records related to principals in the business,  the building to be used, budgets and so forth. I might run into a debate about whether these are the kind of social services records covered by 63.2-104, but I think a careful read of that might convince a skeptic that these forms are public records required to be released under FOIA.

The Department of Social Services, by the way, does a really good job giving the public access to results of its regular inspection of day care centers. You can see similar information about adult homes and the list of forms licensed homes must file. 

Another resource I recommend is a glance at the Code of Virginia and the Virginia Administrative Code to see what they say about any agency’s reporting requirements.

Jails, for instance, are required to file a “serious incident report” for any deaths, firearms use, hostage situations, fires and escapes.

If you want a peek and your sheriff needs a gentle hint, your FOIA request might want to ask for the “serious incident reports, initial and final, required by 6 VAC 15-40-110 to be submitted to the Local Facilities Supervisor of the Compliance and Accreditation Unit of the Department of Corrections.”

It’s always good to think about who needs to keep track of what information and in what form.

And if it helps to brainstorm with someone, there are plenty of people willing to help at VCOG, or the go-to FOIA contacts the Virginia Press Association has put together (I’m one, and am happy to lend a hand when I have the time; try me at dress@dailypress.com).

Ress mug.jpg

Dave Ress covers state and regional issues for the Daily Press in Newport News. He’s worked for newspapers in Virginia and New Jersey as well as for Reuters in Canada, Britain and Africa. He is the author of Gov. Edward Coles and the Vote to Forbid Slavery in Illinois, 1823-1824 and has a PhD in history from the University of New England in Armidale, NSW, Australia.

 

 

Truth in the Field is a series of columns intended to encourage citizens' use of open government provisions. Contributors’ opinions are their own. For more information or to submit a column for potential publication, please contact the editor, Shelley Kimball, at kimball@gwu.edu.

 

 

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