Virginia residents are entitled to access a variety of public records — for a price.
The state’s Freedom of Information Act comes with a caveat. State agencies can charge you for the cost of producing those records. As it is up to those agencies to decide what reasonable costs are, the bill can be a little daunting.
Last year, the mother of a 9-year-old autistic girl who was dragged off the bus by a school bus driver wanted to see video to determine what happened. She was told the video and copies of staff emails would cost $8,800. After some public outcry, the bill was reduced, but it kickstarted an effort to keep government agencies from denying access simply by charging too much for it.
The Virginia Freedom of Information Advisory Council, which studies open government issues, voted recently to recommend a bill to limit fees for public records. Del. Danica Roem, D–Prince William, started advocating for this in the last legislative session. Now, it’s one step closer to reality.
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The case mentioned above is not unique. Some local and state governments and state colleges and universities have made residents and news organizations pay hundreds or even thousands of dollars in order to access public records.
What’s a fair fee? Worst scenario: In 2013, a Chesterfield County resident asked for emails about chickens so she could research government regulations about backyard poultry. She was told the charge for the research would be more than half a million dollars.
Agencies do have to spend time doing this research, and there are some who overburden sometimes understaffed agencies with repeated requests. That’s why the Virginia Municipal League and the Virginia Association of Counties oppose the bill. The Virginia Press Association and the Virginia Coalition for Open Government support it.
Roem’s bill tries to find a happy medium between unlimited access and outrageous expenses. The bill would prohibit agencies from charging if the search took less than two hours and the resident makes no more than four requests a month. After two hours, the agency could charge $33 an hour.
Agencies are allowed to redact a wide variety of things from the FOIA requests, and Del. Marcus Simon, D–Fairfax, claims that much of the time spent honoring FOIA requests is used for redactions. In other words, citizens are paying the agency to black out part of what they are requesting.
The bill will no doubt be tweaked more. We hope, though, that something like what Roem and the Advisory Council are seeking comes to fruition.
Keeping public information from the public is not how a democratic government should operate.