A view from both sides of a FOIA request

Truth in the Field

By Cherise Newsome

There are two sides to every FOIA request. I’ve seen them both.

As the public information officer for Portsmouth Public Schools, I serve as our FOIA compliance officer. Therefore, I manage the requests that come into the school division. I’ve been here about six months, and I’ve logged more than 50 requests of various complexity.

In my previous career as a reporter, I filed FOIA requests to gather information for news articles. I wanted citizens to know how their governments operated, and sometimes documents were the best way to explain that. The information didn’t always come as easily as I hoped. I often felt stonewalled by agencies that didn’t understand the law or didn’t want to follow it. But I learned enough about the law to know my rights, and I often ended up getting what I needed.

Although I have served in different roles, my understanding of FOIA remains pretty much the same: public information should be made public and accessible. There are some exemptions, but for the most part, it’s public.

On a busy day (and let me just tell you, that every day is a busy day in public education), that’s easier said than done. For example, I juggle many tasks – communications, crisis management, school support, community and media relations, digital media, and too many others to list. FOIA is a part of my job, but it is not the totality of my job. To that end, I rely on my colleagues to help fulfill requests. I serve as a guide, ensuring that we follow the law. But often I roll up my sleeves to comb through records and copy them, sort through data sets, and provide the information to requestors. 

As a reporter, I never saw the back-end of my requests. In this role, I have learned that some requests are easy to fulfill. Others can take days or weeks. In each instance, I communicate regularly with the requestor and ask for flexibility if we run into hiccups. So far, so good.

Based on my experience, here are few tips that may help with FOIA requests.

Tips for requestors:

1.     Learn who the FOIA compliance officer is for a certain agency. You can file a request with any public employee, but the officer is a great resource.

2.     Ask whether there’s a process the agency follows to manage FOIAs. The law only requires that you’re a Virginia resident, and you can make the request verbally. But it helps, for example, if you put your request in writing or send it to a central location.

3.     Talk about it. I always appreciate when requestors call first to discuss their requests. It saves us both time. This approach works best if you have a good rapport with your FOIA compliance officer. Because of timing and resources, it’s not always possible to talk about each FOIA.

4.     Ask for a breakdown of costs. The law says you can only be charged for actual costs. If an agency cites a blanket figure, ask how it arrived at that total.

5.     Negotiate. Actually, the law encourages it. Agencies can charge you a fee, but costs are not supposed to be assessed in order to prevent the release of information. Perhaps narrow your request or provide flexibility with the response deadline. That could help. But be prepared for a “no.” Sometimes, it’s just not possible to waive or reduce the fees.

Tips for public agencies/FOIA officers:

1.     Don’t take it personally. FOIA is the law and just about all public agencies are subject to it.

2.     Keep good records of your FOIAs. It can save time if you receive duplicate requests, and it provides a paper trail of your efforts. A FOIA email address or Excel spreadsheet may help.

3.     Educate your colleagues on FOIA. More than one person should understand how it works. You need their buy-in to fulfill a variety of requests.

4.     Review your FOIA policies annually. FOIA laws can change, so make sure your policy is up-to-date. We’re in the process of revising ours now.

5.     Sharpen your skills. There’s always room to grow and learn. Take workshops or webinars to stay in the know.

Although I’m knowledgeable about FOIA, I’m still pretty new in my role. I welcome your comments and suggestions. Email me at cherise.newsome@pps.k12.va.us.  Remember, it’s probably FOIA-able. 

CMNewsome.jpg

Cherise Newsome serves as the Public Information Officer for Portsmouth Public Schools in Portsmouth, Virginia. She is the FOIA Compliance Officer for the school division, and she also manages communications and media relations, among other tasks. Prior to joining the school division in October 2016, Cherise worked for The Virginian-Pilot newspaper for 11 years. She covered education, city government and community news, among other beats. She’s been recognized by the Virginia Press Association for her coverage, and she also received a Media Award from the Virginia Association for Early Childhood Education. Cherise, her husband, and their two children live in Norfolk.

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

Comments

As a School Board Member, I am pleased to have Cherise Newsome on our side. She has been an excellent PIO. Great return on our investment and excellent article, Cherise!

Add new comment

Filtered HTML

  • Allowed HTML tags: <a> <em> <strong> <cite> <blockquote> <code> <ul> <ol> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd> <p> <br> <h2> <h3> <h4>

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.