One citizen's FOIA requests lead to legislative action
(scroll down for a chart of bills that will amend the Freedom of Information Act)
It started with curiosity, and ended with a new law.
Prince William County resident Mark Hjelm was curious about the new Visitor Identification System the PWC school system started using in October 2007.
The system requires visitors to at least three Prince William high schools to hand over their driver’s license, passport or other official identification. The ID is then scanned into the system and immediately linked to databases that will determine if the visitor is on any sex offender registries.
A system with that much power over citizen information surely required serious user-training, so Hjelm filed a request under the Freedom of Information Act for a copy of the contract underlying the new system, as well as any employee-training records.
His request was denied. Security information, thank you very much. Not releasable under FOIA.
That only aroused Hjelm’s curiosity further. Over the next several months, Hjelm filed at least five more requests for related information. He asked how much the county spent on lawyers in implementing the new system.
He also asked for the names of people entered into the system, which made school officials nervous enough that they appeared before the FOI Advisory Council in December saying that they might need to get a FOIA exemption for the records. (School officials acknowledged before the council that the names could be valuable in situations, for instance, where a parent had a court order prohibiting him/her from visiting a child at school. The county did not seek the legislation in the 2009 session.)
Hjelm got some of the records he wanted. He was refused others, and he was told that one would cost more than $2,000 in search and copy fees.
Frustrated with what he saw as possible FOIA violations (a position partially supported by a formal opinion of the FOI Advisory Council), Hjelm filed a petition in general district court requesting a writ of mandamus (a court order compelling the school division to turn over the records).
And here’s where things got really sticky. The FOI Act specifically says that a petition for mandamus "shall be heard within seven days of the date when the same is made." When Hjelm’s attorney filed the case, a hearing was set within that time frame: Dec. 23, 2008.
But the day before the scheduled hearing, the school district filed a motion to quash the writ. With the rush up to Christmas holidays, and school offices closing, the district complained, there was not enough notice of Hjelm’s suit. They claimed another part of the Virginia Code -- the part that deals with non-FOIA petitions for mandamus -- required advance notice of the lawsuit.
Judge Wenda Travers agreed, and threw out Hjelm’s case.
Hjelm was not deterred. Confident that FOIA’s rules on mandamus should apply, he approached his local state Senator, Toddy Puller, and asked if she’d sponsor a bill clarifying that FOIA rules apply to FOIA cases. Puller agreed, and SB 1505 was born.
Hjelm testified before two committees as the bill made its way through the General Assembly, and the bill faced no opposition. It passed both houses unanimously and was forwarded to the governor for his approval.
While Hjelm may feel vindicated by the legislature’s actions, don’t think he’s giving up. He may refile his case against the school district. And, still curious about the workings of the Visitor Identification System, Hjelm plans to file more FOIA requests until he gets the answers he is looking for.
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