Audit shows FOIA still trips up locals
Police compliance triples, but many localities still withhold public records or improperly ask requesters who they are and why they want the records
In September 2006, like they did in 1998, reporters from newspapers across the state converged on all 134 cities and counties asking for public records under the Freedom of Information Act. As in 1998, far too many were refused, given the run around, or questioned about their intentions.
It’s hardly a stellar performance by local governments so badly bruised by the results in 1998 that the General Assembly was prompted to craft the most significant overhaul to FOIA in the 10 years prior.
The requesters asked for the latest two weeks of e-mails from a county supervisor chair or city mayor to their respective board or council; the previous weekend’s crime logs or reports from police or sheriff departments; and the fire inspection reports for two local schools.
Roughly one of every five times, the person seeking the information most recently was denied access to what is supposed to be public information. Many were grilled on who they were and why they wanted the records. FOIA does not require a requester to reveal any such information (except to prove residency, if in doubt).
"That’s much too high a percentage" Frosty Landon, then-executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government told the Virginian-Pilot. "Unfortunately, some localities just have a predisposition to keep things secret."
Of those seeking e-mails of city and county officials, 42 percent saw the documents and 10 percent were denied access. Most of the remaining cities and counties reported they did not use e-mail. Some localities that fell into this category complained that their compliance was labeled "inconclusive."
Fifty-two percent of the cities and counties provided fire inspection reports while 13 percent denied access to them. In the remaining places, the results were inconclusive mostly because the state inspects their schools and the records are kept in Richmond.
The one bright spot came from police departments. In 1998, a miserable 16 percent complied by turning over the records. This year, half of the departments correctly turned over copies of their crime logs.
Only 13 jurisdictions provided all the requested records without grief: Alexandria, Bedford, Charlottesville, Portsmouth, Radford and Winchester, and the counties of Albemarle, Charlotte, Greene, New Kent, Prince George, Scott and Wise.
Wat Hopkins, VCOG board president and member of the Montgomery County School Board, told The Roanoke Times that the audit provides an opportunity to further educate "good people trying to do their jobs." Editorially, the Times still lamented, "Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act refers to "custodians" of information because the information they hold belongs to the public, not the government. Citizens have a right to it. They need not explain why they want it. And they deserve a response within a few days. These are not high-minded principles for which to strive. They are fundamental guarantees that strengthen democracy and help hold government accountable to the people."
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