I Wonder Why That Is

by Megan Rhyne

We humans are observant creatures. We notice everything, even when we don’t notice that we’re noticing. We especially notice when things are different. How often have you seen something in your community, something that’s part of your regular routine, and noticed that it’s just not quite the same as it used to be. And haven’t you often asked yourself, “Hmm, I wonder why that is?”

If that’s happened to you, you should meet Lee Albright and his wife, Paulette, who retired to Nelson County some years ago. A dozen years ago, Lee and Paulette liked to visit their local fish hatchery, which was run by the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (DGIF). When the fish hatchery was suddenly closed to tourists, Lee and Paulette asked themselves, “Hmm, I wonder why that is?”

Lee wasn’t content to let that question be merely rhetorical. Instead, Lee set out to get answers.

He turned to the Virginia Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), a law that can be used by any Virginia citizen to gain access to the records our local and state governments use, maintain, generate and possess in the course of carrying out the work of the people.

He asked DGIF for records about how they were spending money, not just on the local fish hatchery, but in general. That first batch of records didn’t answer the Albrights’ “why is that” question; instead it raised more questions about some of the charges they were seeing on agency credit card records. So they filed another FOIA request. And another. And another.

The road wasn’t always smooth. Sometimes the records were withheld; sometimes there were steep charges for them. Lee went to court when that happened, and he won. He even learned from an anonymous source at DGIF that the irregularities Lee had already uncovered were only the tip of the iceberg.

At the same time Lee started to contact the media about what he was uncovering, the same source that helped him earlier eventually called the state’s fraud, waste and abuse hotline. That prompted an investigation, an audit, indictments and the removal of several members of the DGIF board.

All because the Albrights asked why, and because they used FOIA to find answers.

They aren’t alone, though. There are many, many heroes among us. Citizens who use FOIA to understand why. Citizens usually start out wanting answers to something personal to them, but they often find themselves tracking down information that impacts all citizens.

Consider the woman in Chesterfield County who used FOIA to discover that the county administrator spent $18,000 to charter a flight back to Virginia from Kansas when he learned a local elected official had been arrested.

Consider the York County man who has spent tens of thousands of dollars over the years making FOIA requests as part of his regular routine. He’s usually asking for email and correspondence, just to see what everyone’s up to, though sometimes he’s looking for something in particular.

Consider the Fairfax County woman who filed dozens of FOIA requests with the school district to learn about band and school booster clubs. What she found led to a change in the way the clubs reported their income and expenditures to the school system.

Consider the Loudoun County man who has mobilized the families of special needs students by teaching them how to access their own child’s records and general school records through FOIA.

And there’s the business owner who wondered why the Newport News-Williamsburg Airport canceled the lease on his airport restaurant and so filed a FOIA request. That was the start of a process that eventually revealed the airport’s governing body had improperly used state transportation funds to guarantee a loan taken out by a struggling airline the airport was trying to secure.

None of these hometown heroes were career FOIA nerds like I am. They were often starting blind. Many of them came to our organization for help understanding the ins and outs of the lengthy, arcane but crucially important law: What does the request have to say? How long does the government have to respond? How much can I be charged for a request? Is this an applicable exemption?

Many credit our organization for working and advocating for open government in Virginia. But as I see every day — in the calls, emails and even Tweets I receive — it is the citizens of this state that deserve the kudos and credit. They are the ones using the tools given to them by law to hold their governments accountable. They are the real heroes.

And it all starts by asking, “Hmm. I wonder why that is?”

Megan Rhyne is executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government.

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4 responses to “I Wonder Why That Is”

  1. LarrytheG Avatar

    the basic law that allows people to FOIA is taken for granted today by many but back in “the day” – no such thing existed. And even now – today – there are lots of exemptions and waivers as well as some folks in some agencies who see their job as making it hard for people to use FOIA effectively!

  2. musingsfromjanus Avatar

    This is a great post. Thank you.

  3. I’m a fan of FOIA — but: FOIA requests can be very time consuming and expensive to comply with. I strongly agree with the necessity for having FOIA — but there is a reciprocal obligation on questioners, sometimes observed in the breach, not to waste people’s time. Those who ask questions already answered say, right on the public website of the responding business or agency — compounded by demanding the respondent research a request for “all memos, emails and correspondence” on a broad topic and write up a special answer and mail it along with all supporting materials to them, when the conclusion is already right there — only give the law a bad reputation. I know it’s difficult to prevent such abuses, but they take their toll and provide the motivation and easy arguments for limiting FOIA’s broad reach. Narrowly tailored, specific requests help hugely — they not only focus the attention where it should be, but help avoid that accumulating resentment of FOIA from the very people who have to find time in their workday to implement it. As this post puts it: “Consider the York County man who has spent tens of thousands of dollars over the years making FOIA requests as part of his regular routine. He’s usually asking for email and correspondence, just to see what everyone’s up to, though sometimes he’s looking for something in particular.” That makes me cringe to think of the frustration his requests may have left in their wake, and to ask whether such questioning is, on balance, conducive enough to better government to be worth the cost.

  4. James,

    There are some other aspects to this.

    Many of the State agencies have learned that hassling the public over FOIA requests squanders time and resources. Especially at the worker bee level, these folks take a “You want it? Let me get to the copy machine and email you a PDF so I can get back to work!” approach.
    I’ve watched several State agencies from the inside as they learned those lessons, going back to the inception of FOIA ca. 1980. And I’ve seen the effect from the outside, notably at VDOE, which has been a responsive, no hassles outfit, at least where I’ve been concerned.

    This leads to Lesson #1: If a State agency hassles you about a reasonable FOIA request, you can be almost certain that they are hiding something.

    Local agencies can be another story. They dislike FOIA and they often don’t understand it.

    Lesson #2: With localities, it helps a lot if you have a record of being willing to sue them, or if you can bring on an ally with that reputation.

    Finally, harsh experience has taught me Lesson #3: If you sue them and win, you have to pay taxes on the attorney’s fee award.

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