Last year and this year bills were introduced in the Virginia General Assembly that would allow government to get a court order against a citizen it felt was harassing the government through FOIA. Both bills originated from situations in small localities where a lone clerk -- part-time, at that -- was getting too many FOIA requests from the same person and was unable to get other work done.
Last year, the bill was sent to the FOIA Council for study, but no consensus could be reached. This year the bill was killed in subcommittee.
In this article from the Northwest Herald in Illinois, I've learned that we are not alone.
Bills in this year's Illinois legislature would (a) double the time required to make a response under FOIA; (b) dilute power of the AG to review open records issues; (c) remove public notices from newspapers; and (d) allow the government to deem someone who files more than 15 FOIA requests in a year "vexatious."
Here's what the Northwest Herald's columnist had to say:
Some include branding someone who files more than 15 FOIA requests in a year or five in 30 days as "vexatious." (Would we get T-shirts?) Another would expand the five-day time frame that agencies have to respond to a FOIA to 10 days, which inexplicably would make it worse than it was before FOIA reform was passed last year.
Legislative proposals also seek to curtail the authority of Attorney General Lisa Madigan (one of the rare public officials not afflicted with none-of-your-business-itis) to police these issues and give the power back to the benevolent taxing bodies who've been so generous with the public's information all along.
Yes, there is a small number of people who use FOIA often and possibly unnecessarily. Some of them are pests. But you know what? Too bad. They're also taxpayers, and they have a right to the information.
These "pests" are as much of a stakeholder as the vexed government officials. That's something our elected officials, many of whom have backgrounds as vexed government officials, don't seem to consider.
Let me put it more simply: The real stakeholders are and always will be the public.
Vexatious. Harassment. And Fairfax County Public Schools -- a behemoth in the realm of local governments -- says they're overwhelmed by FOIA requests, too.
For those situations where the problem is more about volume and frequency than about nefarious intent, what are some possible solutions the government can use (other than what is already offered by existing law)? How about...
(1) put as much information online as you can, and make frequently requested records easily available at the clerk's office;
(2) take good care of the way paper, electronic and especially e-mail records are organized, maintained and managed. Good records management will improve FOIA flow.
Towards #2, records managers in Southwest Virginia may get some good ideas at VCOG's "Making Your FOIA Life Easier" records-management seminar. Click here for details.
And feel free to leave a comment below.