Want Info? Check Only, Please.

Del. Danica Roem (D-Prince William) Photo credit: Virginian Pilot

by Dick Hall-Sizemore

A recent article in the Richmond Times-Dispatch illustrates how governments will fight any attempt to amend the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) in a way that would make it easier for citizens to obtain information.

Del. Danica Roem (D-Prince William) has been one of the more persistent legislators seeking to amend the FOIA to make information on government activities more accessible to citizens.  With her background as a journalist, she knows more about how the FOIA functions than most legislators.

One of the chief frustrations of citizens seeking information on their governments’ activities are the fees government agencies are authorized to charge as a condition of providing requested documents. Roem has introduced legislation in the past that would have capped the fees a government agency could charge. These bills went nowhere, and it did not matter if the Democrats were in the majority (HB 2000, 2021 Session) or the Republicans (HB 599, 2022 Session). This year, she took a more modest approach.

HB 2007 would require all public bodies, including local governments, to post on their websites a list of fees they charge for accessing and searching for requested records. It passed unanimously.

She had more trouble with HB 2006. In its original form, that bill would have required governmental agencies to accept electronic payments for the fees assessed to fulfill FOIA requests unless the agency lacked the technology to do so.

Because it seems so obvious, one wonders why it was necessary to introduce a bill requiring agencies to accept credit card payments for FOIA fees. Roem’s own home county, Prince William, requires payment by check for FOIA fees, although its citizens can use their credit cards to pay other costs, such as their water bills. Such a practice means that some citizens may have to drive 30 to 45 minutes to the county administrative offices to drop off checks for their FOIA requests. Intentional or not, that is another obstacle discouraging citizens from  making FOIA requests.

In committee, the Virginia Association of Counties objected. “This bill tells a locality how they can or cannot accept financial payments,” the organization’s general counsel piously protested. Roem’s response that the bill’s mandate would apply only to localities that already accepted electronic payments for other services apparently did not sway the subcommittee members.

To save the bill, Roem agreed to an amendment substituting “may” for “shall.”  The bill subsequently passed both houses unanimously. Of course, that change effectively nullifies the legislation. In its present form, it allows local governments to do what they are already can do and which some are probably already doing. This tactic of not killing a bill but rather amending it to render it meaningless is a familiar one. It used to be called giving the bill the shad treatment. (It may still be called that.)

Putting the best face on the situation, Roem said that compromise was sometimes necessary and that she hoped the legislation would give localities a “nudge” to do the right thing.

Roem said that she is proud the bills passed and hopes they will serve to build a bipartisan consensus for future adjustments to the FOIA and  the Times-Dispatch reporter wrote that these two modest pieces of legislation “may signal a shifting tide on FOIA law.”  Those sentiments are sad commentaries on the degree of opposition by local and state governments and in the General Assembly to any changes designed to provide greater access of citizens to information about the operations of their government.