Experts advise citizens be polite but persistent in their FOI requests

NEWPORT NEWS -- Lee and Paulette Albright of Nelson County uncovered a taxpayer-financed African safari junket by Virginia officials in 2003.

Their revelations sparked firings, resignations and investigations in the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries.

Brenda Stewart of Chesterfield County discovered an $18,170 airplane flight on the public's tab by County Administrator Lane B. Ramsey last year, causing a ruckus

The state's Freedom of Information Act is a powerful tool, most often used by average citizens who want to know how their money is spent and other decisions made by their state and local governments.

"Citizens need to be engaged, to be involved in government activity, and to watch what their government is doing," said Frosty Landon, executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government.

"At the heart of it, if you are going to have an informed citizenry and vote on Election Day, they have to know what government is up to," he said. "This is not a media-privilege law. It's a citizen-access law."

Here are some tips from experts on how to best use the state's Freedom of Information Act, established in 1968 and overhauled in 1999:
  • Put your request in writing, invoking the state's Freedom of Information law.
  • Be specific about the records you want and reasonable in the scope of your inquiry.
  • Expect to be charged a reasonable fee for time spent to find and copy documents.
  • Be polite but persistent.
  • Call the state's Freedom of Information Advisory Council if you run into a problem.
"You get more with honey than you do with vinegar," said Maria J.K. Everett, executive director of the 12-member state council that referees open-records disputes.

The law is intended to help citizens obtain records of government activity and expenditures at the state and local levels.

It is not a way to help find a child given up for adoption or information about a private company. It is not a subpoena to force officials to answer all your questions, Everett said.

"Freedom of information means to some people you can bully public officials. No, it doesn't," Everett said.

But the law is a way to obtain public records that could provide some answers, or raise questions about government decisions or spending practices.

The law requires government officials to respond to a formal request within five business days. The records must be turned over -- either electronically or on paper -- within 12 business days unless a court grants an extension.

In general, how tax money is spent is a public record and can be obtained under FOIA, including salaries of government employees. E-mails are public record. So are government contracts.

State law establishes a list of subjects exempt from open-records requirements, including security decisions, personnel actions, public employee health records and some police investigation reports.

But the law also states that a record is public information unless specifically exempted, and instructs courts to rule in favor of releasing records if there is any doubt.

More than a third of last year's 1,200 FOIA questions to the council were posed by private citizens, far more than those from the news media, Everett said.

"This law is meant to help citizens work their way through what can be an impenetrable government," Landon said.

Landon and Everett said they are prepared to help any Virginia resident file an information request or overturn an improper denial of a request. | You can help keep an eye on officials