Examining how open government really is

Published 11:30 am Wednesday, February 15, 2017

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.”

For citizens of Charlotte, public bodies include their county government and board of supervisors.

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

“The affairs of government are not intended to be conducted in an atmosphere of secrecy since at all times the public is to be the beneficiary of any action taken at any level of government,” FOIA states.

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.

Alan Gernhardt, senior attorney with the Virginia Freedom of Information Advisory Council, gave an example to help illustrate how FOIA itself is the default set of rules for getting copies of government records, and it applies in more situations than many might understand.

“People never think about it this way, really, but when you go to (the Department of Motor Vehicles) and say, … ‘Can I have the form for that please?’ They hand you the form — nobody thinks FOIA, nobody worries about a five-day response, but those things are absolutely public records,” he said. “They are a record produced by a government agency in the transaction of public business.”

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

However, it is obvious from the language of FOIA’s policy that the spirit of the law is inclined toward making governments open.

To give some perspective on the openness of Charlotte County’s government, The Gazette posed a set of questions to it and later submitted a FOIA request. What follows is a summary of their responses to the set of questions.

The county gave several specific answers. In some instances, it said to check the online minutes from board of supervisors meetings to find the answers, and in several instances, it said the data was not readily available.

“We do not maintain statistics for some of the questions below and researching the items to provide accurate responses would require a significant amount of staff time,” Charlotte County Purchasing Agent/Planner Monica L. Elder said. “To minimize staff time involved, we are providing a copy of the Charlotte County FOIA policy … and have responded below to questions whenever data is readily available.”

The Gazette asked if this meant the county could not answer the questions, or that given some extra time, it could do so.

Charlotte County Administrator R.B. Clark responded, “Of course we can answer the questions.”

When a new deadline was set, Clark elaborated on the county’s situation and perspective.

“We have answered all of your questions for which data is readily available,” he said. “It would be too time consuming for our small staff to research the rest … If you want to discuss this please feel free to call me.”

Addressing the specific responses provided, in responding to the question of whether the county always uses exemptions that apply to a record or meeting or if it sometimes releases information or holds open meetings when it doesn’t have to, the county said, “In order to be consistent, we use exemptions when they apply.”

The county said some of the common exemptions it uses when it is asked for records include attorney-client privilege, personnel and trade secrets or confidential proprietary information submitted by bidders.

While the county said data was not readily available for how quickly it responded to FOIA requests on average in 2016, it added, “but all FOIA deadlines were met.”

The county does not always charge for requested records. Its FOIA policy states that the charge for photocopies of documents is 25 cents per page and $1 for CD production. Hourly personnel charges will be assessed if the time involved in researching, assembling and copying documents exceeds 30 minutes. This hourly charge will be computed in 15-minute increments at the hourly wage rate of the employee doing the work.

The county said it receives very few out-of-state FOIA requests, and “due to the amount of staff time that can be involved in responding to a FOIA request, we do not respond to out-of state requests.”

When it comes to regularly-held board meetings, the county said agendas and board packets are available the Thursday prior to the Tuesday meetings.

The county also said agendas and board packets are both available in print as soon as the documents are received by board members, and the agenda is posted online shortly after it is available to board members, the media and others who have requested a copy. The county doesn’t post the board packet online.

The county noted the board cites the subject of the closed session of which it is entering. An inspection of the minutes indicates the subject listed does not go beyond listing paraphrased wording from the code section, though.

The county said 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 that in recent years, it “has worked to expand the amount of information available online. As part of this effort, we have started posting audio recordings of the board meetings online. The county also recently launched an online GIS system that is accessible to the public. For those without internet access, county staff is always happy to work with the public to help them find the information they need.”

To test how Charlotte County’s government fares when it comes to the handling of FOIA requests, it received such a request from The Gazette via email in the early afternoon Feb. 1 for the following information: the current contract of the county administrator, all emails within Jan. 7-31 between the administrator and any member of the board of supervisors and a copy of all county-approved contracts totaling more than $4,000 that the county 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.

Less than an hour-and-a-half after the initial request, Elder sent an email acknowledging receipt of the FOIA request and giving an estimate of possible charges.

She responded with the requested information the morning of Friday, Feb. 3.

There was no contract for the county administrator included because the county noted that no such document exists, stating, “The county administrator serves at the will and pleasure of the board of supervisors.”

A 35-page attachment included 20 emails. Email attachments were not included, but copies of them were offered if desired. The county withheld one email under the attorney-client privilege exemption permitted under FOIA.

The county said that while it made purchases under existing contracts during the time period specified by The Gazette, no new contracts more than $4,000 were established and no existing contracts more than $4,000 were amended.

There was no charge for The Gazette’s FOIA request, as Elder said the time required to respond did not exceed the 30 minutes provided free of charge under the county’s FOIA policy.