Freedom of information in Virginia isn’t always free, a little hitch that might prove insurmountable to ordinary residents curious about the spending habits of their local governments.
A recent request by The Times-Dispatch for documents from 114 cities, towns and counties detailing how much they spent at the Virginia Municipal League conference in Norfolk last October resulted in a total bill of $638.95 charged to the newspaper for research, copying and mailing costs.
The Times-Dispatch made the request under the Virginia Freedom of Information Act, a state law that gives the public the right to obtain government information.
All the localities complied with the FOI request, and only 16 of them charged for their clerical work in compiling the information.
The town of Woodstock, for example, charged nothing for providing the 13 pages of records detailing the expenses of the six representatives it sent to the conference. Larry Bradford, the town manager, said the town receives few FOI requests. “Apparently it didn’t take much time to research. In general, we waive the costs.”
But if you live in Luray, Warrenton, Orange, Front Royal or Martinsville, be prepared to cough up some serious change for your curiosity about how your tax dollars are spent.
Luray weighed in with the biggest bill, charging the newspaper $194.64 for 40 pages of receipts, hotel and restaurant bills, and registration forms.
The town, which sent nine people and spent a little more than $7,500 at the conference, charged $170.14 for what it called administrative costs, $9.75 for copying costs and $14.75 to send the documents by overnight mail.
After a Times-Dispatch letter protesting the bill, then-Town Manager Bill Vance responded by letter, reiterating that the cost was based on three hours of salary and benefits for two staff members to gather the information — which came to $170.14, plus $24.50 in copying and mailing costs.
Vance, who was dismissed from his job last month, could not be reached for comment. Cindy Bushey, the town treasurer who helped research the information request, said there is no set policy on how much to charge for FOI requests.
“We were told by the town manager how to charge,” she said.
The town of Warrenton initially charged $84.32 for sending its documents but then tacked on $35.52 for the time it took to answer five follow-up questions a reporter e-mailed to a town official, bringing the total to $119.84.
Warrenton charged for each individual piece of paper sent to the newspaper — .0039 cents a sheet for 34 sheets, or 13 cents.
The town of Orange charged $73 and demanded a letter that The Times-Dispatch would pay the bill before the town would send the documents. Sabrina M. Martyn, the Orange town manager, said she did not believe similar charges would fend off inquiring citizens.
“It’s not set up as a deterrent. It can take some time” to research and copy requested documents, Martyn said.
The city of Martinsville billed the newspaper $50.67 for two hours of staff time, at $20 an hour, and 25 cents per page for copying costs and $1.67 for mailing costs.
Front Royal demanded its $56.50 in hand before the town would release the documents, and it chastised The Times-Dispatch in a letter responding to the newspaper’s protest that the bill was too high.
“In the case of your FOIA request, our deputy director of finance spent two hours digging through files in order to get the documents you requested,” wrote Rhonda S. North, the clerk of council. “This was two hours that was not spent serving the Front Royal tax-paying public.”
The other 11 localities charged anywhere from about $2 to roughly $40 for their work. The vast majority charged nothing.
According to the FOI law, a public body may make “reasonable charges not to exceed its actual cost incurred in accessing, duplicating, supplying or searching for the requested records.”
“I think maybe we’re making progress,” said Forrest M. Landon, the executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, after hearing that most localities complied with the law for free.
But Landon said, “You always have to worry about research fees that can become an obstacle to access … Costs must be reasonable, but no one knows what is reasonable.” Landon said localities should waive fees when possible and construe the law “liberally for openness.”
“Any government entity should take affirmative action to make access easy” to its records, especially expense records, Landon said. “The expenditure of public money is such a fundamental aspect of government and government oversight.”
Maria Everett, the head of the FOI Advisory Council whose mission is to advise and educate the public and Virginia officials about the state’s FOI law, said public requests for documents “shouldn’t be a moneymaker for government … Reasonable fees are not there as an obstacle so you’ll go away and leave us alone.”
Everett said that including benefits as part of the salary in charging for research time is not allowed, nor is charging for requests such as the one asking for clarification about information in documents. “I don’t see that as a proper charge.”
Some localities went out of their way to charge judiciously.
The town of Radford charged $38.20 for plucking out and copying 22 pages of information for the newspaper. The town used both sides of each piece of paper to lower the bill.
“Generally when I send stuff out, I use the front and back to save money,” said Scott Pochick, Radford’s director of finance. He also only charged for a half-hour of research time, though he said the actual time was closer to four or five hours.
“I tried to calculate the charge as if all the records were in perfect order, as if you just went to the records and pulled out the invoices,” Pochick said.
The town of Vinton, which charged $2.20 for 22 pages of documents, took a similar stance. “We figure it’s public information,” said Clay Goodman, the town manager. “We want people to have access to this information. I work for the public.”
Complaining also can help sometimes. The city of Franklin sent a $96.45 bill for its research and copying costs until the newspaper protested that the bill was unreasonably high. Franklin sent a new bill withdrawing the research charges and assessing only $5.25 for copying costs.
Carlos Santos is a staff writer at the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Times-Dispatch staff writers Rex Bowman, Tina Eshleman, Bill Geroux, Will Jones, Kiran Krishnamurthy and Ren?e Petrina contributed to this report.