Government still has work to do to fulfill the promise of FOIA
Va. open-record laws let citizens hold leaders accountable
BY JIM NOLAN
TIMES-DISPATCH STAFF WRITER
Kathleen Decker Burden made news last year simply by using the Freedom of Information Act.
Burden used FOIA to obtain correspondence between the Henrico County School Board and Superintendent Fred Morton IV addressing complaints that board member Jim Fiorelli intimidated several teachers by taking his child's papers to them to be graded while he waited.
After some initial resistance, Burden received documents that shed light on the issue and ignited a debate on the potential conflict between an elected official's duty to the public and rights as a private citizen.
"It seems to me that public officials are just that -- public officials," said Burden, 44, a paralegal who works at Philip Morris USA.
"So if there's information that concerns a particular entity, the whole point to me is that a lot of these transactions shouldn't be done in the dark."
To Burden and others, FOIA means access to information that officials, boards and government agencies don't always want the public to see. And that information -- retrieved and revealed by residents, not muckraking reporters or government-watchdog agencies -- can lead to change.
Burden said the law governing freedom of information is written so an average person can use it, but it doesn't hurt to be a little savvy or persistent in your request.
"There are some agencies that are better than others in facilitating the citizens' use of that law," she said.
Maria J.K. Everett, executive director of the Virginia Freedom of Information Advisory Council, agreed.
"[Government] people have not been trained or educated in what the law requires," she said, underscoring the need for agencies to be neutral about the process of providing information.
Why somebody wants the information is none of the government's business, Everett said. Likewise, "FOIA does not always require the government to give an answer or explanation for what it is doing," she added. "FOIA's about getting records."
Sometimes those records are incomplete.
Richmond resident Becky Dale said that when she asked for a copy of a payment voucher from the Richmond public school system in 2000, she received only a part of the voucher that had been cut and pasted onto ledger paper, giving the appearance that she had been given the whole transaction.
"After some back and forth, I got the whole document," said Dale, 53, a church secretary in the city's West End who has written on FOIA topics and who does volunteer work for the Virginia Coalition for Open Government. "But I was very upset that they altered the document."
The FOIA law provides time limits for government bodies to provide requested records. A response must be made within five business days, and agencies then have up to an additional seven business days to satisfy the request.
The law allows residents to file suit against the government if it fails to respond to reasonable requests in a timely fashion. It also allows government bodies to charge a fee for the cost and time involved in processing certain requests.
Richmonder John Butcher sets aside $1,000 a year for FOIA-related matters.
The former assistant state attorney general, who sued polluters on behalf of the State Water Control Board during his 23-year career, now spends his semi-retirement running a gadfly Web site, The Cranky Taxpayer.
For Butcher, FOIA is a tool for information. He has used the law to obtain information from the Virginia Department of Education and from the city Police Department regarding calls for service in the James River Park area where he lives. He, too, has tangled with Richmond's school system.
"For whatever reason, folks in government tend to view the information they hold as somehow private," Butcher said. "Having [FOIA] changes the relationship between the average citizen and their government."
Open-government advocates say the need for FOIA is just as critical as it was when the law was enacted in 1968.
"There are great expectations of openness in the Internet age," said Forrest M. "Frosty" Landon, the executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government and former executive editor of The Roanoke Times.
"There's a growing concern about privacy but also great concern about security since 9/11."
Landon said government still has work to do to fulfill the promise of FOIA. People still have the most trouble getting records from police and law-enforcement agencies, especially in rural areas.
A 1998 audit on open access found 16 percent compliance with FOIA by law-enforcement agencies. That level improved to 50 percent in the most recent audit, conducted last year.
Still, Landon said, the nation is built on the foundation of democracy, of government by the people and for the people.
"You need right of access," he said. "How are you going to have an informed citizenry if citizens don't have the access to what the government is doing with citizens' taxpayer dollars?"
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