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How open is government?

First 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 Heart of Virginia.

All citizens of Virginia, whether they realize it or not, have an important ally that has been written into law. It is a valuable tool, ensuring they have the ability to observe how they are being governed, and it is a hallmark of the free society that exists in the United States of America.

This ally, tool and hallmark is called the Virginia Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

Virginia FOIA’s policy states that “by enacting this chapter, the General Assembly ensures the people of the commonwealth ready access to public records in the custody of a public body or its officers and employees and free entry to meetings of public bodies wherein the business of the people is being conducted.”

The policy of FOIA underscores the importance of transparency and openness when it comes to how these public bodies operate.

Public bodies have five work days to respond to a request for public records.

FOIA does grant exemptions that a public body or its officers or employees can exercise to make a meeting closed or to withhold records.

To give some perspective on the openness of governments in the area, a uniform set of questions were posed to the counties and town. What follows is a summary of their answers.

CUMBERLAND

The county gave several specific answers and, in a few instances, referred to the minutes of the board of supervisors on the county website as the place to find answers.

The county said it received eight FOIA requests in 2016 and none of them were denied. The topic of the most frequently requested records was salary information for county employees. Even if there is an exemption that applies to a record, the county said it uses its discretion and may still provide the record.

The county said that on average, it responded to FOIA requests in 4-5 days in 2016. It utilized the seven-work-day extension once in 2016 because additional time was needed to complete the request.

The county does not always charge for requested records. When there is a charge, the county said that the hourly rate depends on the employee performing the work and that it cannot charge more than the actual cost.

The county stated that in 2016, the maximum charge it applied to a FOIA request was $180.77. On four different occasions, it granted requests for free.

The county noted it currently denies out-of-state FOIA requests.

When it comes to regularly-held board meetings, the county said the board packets and meeting agendas are released to the public an average of six days prior to the meeting and are made available in print and online as soon as the documents are received by the board members.

The county noted the board cites the subject of the closed session of which it is entering, and some common exemptions in 2016 included Virginia Code 2.2-3711.A.7: Consultation with Legal Counsel, A.6: Investment of Public Funds and A.1: Personnel.

The county stated that neither it nor the board of supervisors were sued under FOIA in 2016.

When asked how it goes above and beyond responding to FOIA requests and making documents and information available to the public, the county said, “Cumberland handles every request as a FOIA request, provides as much information as practicable on the county website and responds as quickly as possible to requests for public records.”

PRINCE EDWARD

The county provided several specific answers, some educated estimates, respectfully declined to do some of the research to answer some of the questions and also, like Cumberland, said to check the agenda and minutes of board of supervisors’ meetings available to the public on the county website for answers in some other cases.

“Prince Edward County has a very small staff to complete our normal workload,” Prince Edward County Administrator Wade Bartlett said. The county said it treats every request for a public record — whether in person, verbally or in writing — as a FOIA request, and it does not track the number of requests it receives.

Wade Bartlett

Wade Bartlett

The county said the only reason a FOIA request would typically be denied is if the records do not exist or the county administrator’s office is not the custodian of the records. In this case, it would redirect the request to the custodian, if known.

The county said it rarely applies exemptions when records are requested, and the board of supervisors enters into closed session only when deemed necessary.

The county said it typically responded to FOIA requests in 2016 immediately, and it does not recall having needed to apply the seven-work-day extension, though if it did, it was seldom requested.

The county noted it does not always charge for requested records. It manages the hourly rate by using the lowest-cost employee who can facilitate the research, review and compilation of the records requested.

In 2016, the maximum charge the county said it applied to a FOIA request was $167.63 and the minimum charge was $0.

The county said it typically denies out-of-state requests.

When it comes to regularly-held board meetings, the county said the meeting agendas are typically available five days in advance, and the agendas and board packets are made available in print and online as soon as the documents are received by board members.

The county noted supervisors cite the subject of the closed session of which it is entering, and meeting minutes reflect this, as well.

The county stated that neither it nor the board of supervisors were sued under FOIA in 2016.

When asked how it goes above and beyond responding to FOIA requests and making documents and information available to the public, the county said it does so “by handling every request as a FOIA request, by providing as much information as practicable on the county’s website and by responding immediately and at the lowest possible cost to requests for public records.”

BUCKINGHAM

For Buckingham, the county provided several specific answers and some educated estimates.

“We do not receive a lot of FOIAs, because if it is just a little bit of info someone wants that is readily available, I try to provide that info to the requester without them having to go through the FOIA forms and process,” Buckingham County Administrator Rebecca S. Carter said.

After an initial search, the county said it believes it received three FOIA requests in 2016, one of which was denied because it was an out-of-state request. The most requested information was regarding the  proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline project and its compressor station.

The county said it has used its discretion to release information that it does not necessarily have to release.

The county said that on average, it responded to FOIA requests in 2016 within five business days and does not recall using the seven-work-day extension, noting it would only do so if the request is quite “expensive in type and amount of information requested.”

Rebecca S. Carter

Rebecca S. Carter

Carter said, “If a request is made for information that is readily available, can be emailed and does not have to be copied and formed into a file, generally, I provide the information without charge if it is not an official FOIA request.”

The county said that if it finds it needs to charge, it does so based on the hourly rate of the staff member most familiar with the subject and files being requested.

The county said it believes the maximum charge for a FOIA request in 2016 was $34.50.

“The other one was something I was able to email a page or two, and the other was an out-of-state request that was denied,” Carter said.

The county said it does not provide information in response to out-of-state FOIA requests.

As for regularly-held board meetings, the county said board packets and meeting agendas are made available 3-4 business days before a board meeting, and they are made available in print and online as soon as the documents are received by the board members.

The county said its board of supervisors went into closed session eight times in 2016, with the most frequently used session exemption being prospective business or industry. The next most frequent exemption pertained to legal matters.

The county confirmed it cites the subject to be discussed when supervisors go into closed session according to the Code of Virginia requirements.

The county stated that neither it nor the board of supervisors were sued under FOIA in 2016.

When asked how it goes above and beyond responding to FOIA requests and making documents and information available to the public, Carter said, “I try to provide anything requested that I can legally provide, and I try to provide it in the most timely manner as possible — FOIA or even just a general request such as this request.”

FARMVILLE

In answering the uniform set of questions, the Town of Farmville provided several specific responses, but also referred to its website as the place to find some answers and, in a few cases, said it does not track or has no way of tracking the information requested.

The town said it treats each request for information/records as a FOIA request and has no way of tracking that information.

Addressing the specific responses, the town said it promotes open government and makes every attempt to provide the information requested, but follows FOIA section 2.2-3704 to withhold exempted records when it is deemed to be in the best interest of the town.

The town said the council enters into closed session only when it deems it is in the best interest of the town, and the council makes every effort to conduct meetings in open session.

As for its average response time to FOIA requests in 2016, the town said it makes every attempt to respond immediately and comply with the FOIA-required five-day response time.

The town does not always charge for requested records, and it did not charge for any request for information/documents in 2016.

When a charge is involved, the town said it uses the average hourly rate of all the employees involved in compiling the information.

The town said it typically denies out-of-state FOIA requests.

When it comes to regularly-held town council meetings, the town said meeting agendas and council packets are made available seven to eight days prior to the meeting. Agendas are available in print and on the town website as soon as documents are received by council members.

As seen in the minutes of its regular meetings, the town cites the Virginia Code section for why it is going into closed session and in some instances lists a specific subject.

The town stated that neither it nor the town council were sued under FOIA in 2016.

When asked how it goes above and beyond responding to FOIA requests and making documents and information available to the public, the town said it “treats all requests for information/documents as a FOIA request and makes every effort to respond immediately. The town attempts to be as transparent as possible in all its actions.”

Next Friday, we will reveal the responses of governments in the area to a FOIA request for three different pieces of information, noting the speed of their response, the volume of work done, the amount of items redacted and the charge for the request.