How governments respond to FOIA

Published 1:32 pm Thursday, February 16, 2017

Second in a two-part series

Editor’s note: This series informs about the ability citizens have to observe how they are governed through and in using the Virginia Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), and it analyzes the openness and responsiveness of governments in the area.

According to the Virginia Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), public bodies have five work days to respond to a request for public records. If they respond within this time period noting that it is not practically possible to provide the requested records or to determine their availability in the allotted time, they can have a seven-work-day extension.

To test how governments in the area fare when it comes to the handling of FOIA requests, they received such a request from The Herald via email in the early afternoon on Feb. 1 for the following information: the current contract of the county administrator/town manager, all emails within Jan. 7-31 between the administrator/manager and any member of the board of supervisors/town council and a copy of all county/town-approved contracts totaling more than $4,000 that the county/town has authorized or amended between Dec. 1, 2016-Jan. 31, 2017.

The five-work-day window began Thursday, Feb. 2, and ended Wednesday, Feb. 8.

FARMVILLE

The town was the fastest to provide its official response to the request, emailing it in just under 24 hours. There ended up being no authorized or amended contracts to send that matched the specifications in the request, but the 25-page attachment included a cover letter, the town manager’s employment agreement and seven emails, with their attachments. Nothing was redacted, and there was no charge from the town for the work related to generating the response.

BUCKINGHAM

The county provided its official response in a little more than 48 hours, emailing it on the afternoon of Feb. 3. County employees overcame some initial difficulties in sending the information, eventually sending the 49-page attachment in two parts.

There ended up being no authorized or amended contracts to send that matched the specifications in the request, but the attachment included a cover letter, the county administrator’s contract and 18 emails, with their attachments. Nothing was redacted.

There was a small charge from the county related to generating the response, and Buckingham County Administrator Rebecca S. Carter shared details about it in the cover letter.

“The county cost used to copy/scan any FOIA information into a file is .25 (cents) per page,” she said. “This request took a minimal amount of staff time as the information is readily available, therefore, in this case, I am not adding any staff time. This file has forty-eight (48) pages, therefore the cost of producing this file is $12.”

The county was the second government in the area to provide an initial reply before sending its official response. On the afternoon of Feb. 1, Carter asked how The Herald wished to have the information delivered.

“If you wish to have the information electronically, the cost will not exceed $20,” she said. “Please advise as soon as possible.”

CUMBERLAND

The county provided its official response on the third work day within the five-work-day time frame, emailing it on the afternoon of Feb. 6.

The email included four attachments. One of them was the eight-page employment agreement for the county administrator, and another was the compilation of emails, which consisted of three pages and two emails. The last two attachments were copies of the two county-approved contracts totaling more than $4,000 that the county authorized or amended during the time frame specified in The Herald’s FOIA request. The attachments were a combined 48 pages long.

The county did not specify that any information was redacted.

In the email, Stephany S. Johnson, Cumberland’s FOIA Officer, outlined the charge for the response.

“The cost for fulfilling your request is $33.24, which is simply a labor cost (two hours at $16.62 per hour),” she said.

The county was the first government in the area to provide an initial reply before sending its official response. Less than an hour after the request was sent, Johnson emailed asking in what format The Herald would like the information requested.

PRINCE EDWARD

Prince Edward County Administrator Wade Bartlett emailed his original contract and all addendums the morning of Feb. 6. It was a 15-page attachment.

“I am only providing the contract at this time because it will take considerable time for me to go through all of my email folders to find every email I have either sent or received from members of the board of supervisors and to review all county-approved contracts authorized from Dec. 1, 2016-Jan. 31, 2017,” he said.

He advised that he did not anticipate the cost of the request being more than $200, but he said there was the possibility it might be and explained why.

“I will have to review every e-mail to determine if some are covered by an exemption, in which case I may not be able to release them,” he said.

After confirming that The Herald wanted him to proceed in fulfilling the request, he hand-delivered hard copies of the county’s official response the morning of Feb. 8. The packet of documents included a cover letter, an invoice indicating the charge of $80.11 and 34 emails, with their attachments. The emails and attachments encompassed 73 pages.

In the cover letter, Bartlett said, “As you may know, county administrator’s emails are exempt from FOIA as they are working papers of the county administrator.”

FOIA states that “working papers” means those records prepared by or for a specific list of public officials (including county administrator) for his/her personal or deliberative use.

“I am not invoking this exemption except for nine emails that deal with items that are still being discussed with the board of supervisors in closed session,” Bartlett said.

He said the topics include courthouse security, contracts and prospective businesses.

He also added that he could find no county-approved contracts totaling more than $4,000 that were adopted between Dec. 1, 2016 and Jan. 31, 2017.