We are not (unfortunately) alone

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.


This story says that the Rhode Island Executive Office of the Department of Human Services is proposing regulations for filling FOIA-type requests that say employees should make every reasonable effort to honor” a request for public documents, but that satisfying the request “shall not in any way interfere with the ordinary course of business.”

My take? Requests for PUBLIC records ARE within the ordinary course of business.


Ya know, most of this whole problem would go away if jurisdictions would simply post documents on their websites when they are completed. It is not that big a deal to do. Why, I've even heard of individual citizens with NO experience have managed to do it when local governments couldn't or wouldn't. Once the document is completed it is so easy to load it online. In fact, jurisdictions can use open-source free software for most everything they need to do. It doesn't have to be fancy with a lot of bells and whistles, it just needs to provide information! If someone doesn't have computer access at home, they can go to a public library or come into a local jurisdiction if the jurisdiction would simply put a computer in the building for citizens to use. Keep it simple and easy to understand and people can often do their own work.
Webpages can be set up easily and in a way that people with dialup connection can use it. There are lots of free programs available to get the job done.

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