The News Virginian: FOIA used to expose megasite
FOIA used to expose megasite
By Cleve Wiese
The News Virginian
Sunday, March 16, 2008
When Middlebrook farmer Betty Jo Hamilton first started hearing rumors in 2006 about a massive new industrial development planned for Augusta County, she knew her rights -- and she knew how to exercise them.
"If you know what questions to ask, you can sometimes figure out what’s going on," she said.
Hamilton was certain such a large-scale project -- whatever it might be -- would involve a significant paper trail, and because of the Freedom of Information Act, signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1966, she had a legal right to demand access to it.
But first, Hamilton had to have a better idea of what "it" actually was: Citizens can request copies of particular documents and, unless those documents are for some reason exempt from FOIA regulations, their requests have to be honored. But more general requests for information can be ignored.
"You have to be pretty specific," Hamilton said of FOIA procedure.
From the rumors, Hamilton knew the approximate size (2,000 acres) and general location (between Interstate 81 and the Shenandoah Valley Regional Airport) of the potential development, so she started looking for large tracts of land up for sale in the area. First she located a 700-acre likely "core tract," then started adding parcels of land around its periphery. Before long, she thought she had an accurate enough idea of the development’s location to move forward.
She mailed a request to the Augusta County Board of Supervisors asking for any "studies of potential industrial development" on the land she had identified, saying in her letter, "The disclosure of the requested information is in the public interest and it is likely to contribute to public understanding of the operations or activities of the government."
In their response, county officials confirmed that a 400-page report assessing the feasibility of an industrial "megasite" on the property had been drafted at a cost of $440,000, but refused to release the report itself, citing a FOIA exemption for ongoing business negotiations. Still, confirmation was enough to get the public involved.
"Once enough people learned enough about it, they started going to the board of supervisors meetings " Hamilton said. "The greatest concern was the question of eminent domain [The people in that area are] farmers, they’ve been farming for generations, they want to keep farming and weren’t interested in having their land gobbled up by some outside interest, regardless of how many jobs it was going to bring in."
The board did eventually release most of the report, after scuttling the plan for financial reasons, and there is no way to be certain exactly how much of a role Hamilton’s FOIA request played in the failure of the industrial site, or even whether that failure was a good thing. But it certainly put the onus on county officials to explain their actions.
"I’m a voting citizen, I’m a tax-paying citizen, and I wanted to know what my elected officials were doing and I wanted to know how they were spending my money," Hamilton said.
More recently, RAIL Solution, an organization opposed to plans for a large-scale expansion of I-81, filed a FOIA request with the Virginia Department of Transportation for "full information on the exclusive agreement between VDOT and Kellogg Brown & Root," a contractor in talks to build new toll lanes for truck traffic on the highway.
"We need a better understanding of what gives rise to such an unusual and exclusive entitlement for this work, and what kind of arrangement is in place between VDOT and KBR governing this work," according to a segment of the request posted on the group’s Web site.
Twenty-five days later, Kellogg Brown & Root backed out of the plan.
"While I cannot make any affirmative linkage between our FOIA request and the folding of the I-81 tent, it does seem curiously coincidental," said RAIL Solution Executive Director David Foster in a media release.
Any citizen interested in a particular government document is just as entitled to it through FOIA as Hamilton or Foster.
This year’s "Sunshine Week," an annual event organized by the American Society of Newspaper Editors to raise awareness about the FOIA law, begins today.
Generally, FOIA requests can be mailed, e-mailed or made over the phone, though some government agencies have particular guidelines. They should be as specific as possible.
An agency has five days to respond to a request, either by releasing the document, notifying the requester that more time will be needed, or explaining why the document is exempt from FOIA laws.
According to the Virginia Coalition for Open Government’s Web site, some of the most common exemptions include personnel records, scholastic records that identify students, health records and records that reveal security or anti-terrorism measures.
"I think all people should be interested in what their government is doing, whether it’s local government, state government or national government," Hamilton said. "I think there’s a document somewhere that says . . .Of the people, by the people, for the people.’ Well, we are the people, and the people have to accept their responsibility for that part of the democratic equation."
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