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.

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38 responses to “Want Info? Check Only, Please.”

  1. DJRippert Avatar

    My son lives in Frisco, Tx. He goes running in his neighborhood. So do a lot of people. On warm / hot days the neighborhood kids have lemonade stands on their front lawns. Those lemonade stands usually take credit cards.

    The intransigence and incompetence of Virginia’s government entities is truly breathtaking to behold.

    1. Nancy Naive Avatar
      Nancy Naive

      400 years of tradition unhampered by progress.

      1. Nancy Naive Avatar
        Nancy Naive

        Uh yep, and do you know the first question he asked?
        “Is it plugged in?”
        and thus Tech Support was created.

        If it’s like anything else in Virginia, the rest of the conversation went something like…
        “Plugged into what?”
        “The electrical circuit.”
        “An electrical what?”

        1. how_it_works Avatar

          I once did dialup tech support for Erol’s. That was in 1996. After about 2 months I couldn’t take it anymore.

          1. Nancy Naive Avatar
            Nancy Naive

            So, you know first hand about America’s declining education system.

            My first job out of college was programming Wang 2200s for the Navy. We had a group of GS-15 types come through for a demo, one of whom took copious notes. About a month later we got a call from him. He had bought an identical system, plugged it in, and typed “Run”. ERR-18.

            “What’s Error 18?”
            “You need to load a program”
            “Where do I get one of those?”

            That was my first contract mod.

          2. LarrytheG Avatar

            Yes, but did you ever program a TI-59 to do real-time missile re-targetting?


          3. Nancy Naive Avatar
            Nancy Naive

            Nope, but I did hook said Wang 2200 to a WLR-1 with an AS-16 antenna to passively track Russian Bears coming out of Cuba.

          4. LarrytheG Avatar


          5. LarrytheG Avatar

            Did you ever learn how a ship keeps from shooting itself?

          6. Nancy Naive Avatar
            Nancy Naive

            Lockout zones. The CWIS always made me nervous.

          7. LarrytheG Avatar

            yep. And when we sell ships to other countries and they change the weaponry….. 😉

          8. “That was my first contract mod.”

            And I trust you learned mods were where the money was:) A valuable education.

          9. By the late ’70s I was a Datapoint ISO (Independent Software Organization), they were Wang competitors. The Navy used them for payroll and other stuff. The Capitol Area Users Group met in the Sec Defs office. It was exciting when Datapoint upgraded 4k memory cards to 16k. 32 512 byte memory chips on a card, imagine what you could do with all that ram workspace! Funny time, long long ago. Small world.

          10. Nancy Naive Avatar
            Nancy Naive

            I was just thinking about those days and having 32K memory. Windows 11 uses that for the log in keystroke reader.

            Remember the Avis Wizard? It had 1K mag core, and some genius wrote a program to do the contract calculations on it. The actual contract data would be downloaded from some mainframe somewhere. Everything was done in that 1K.

          11. LarrytheG Avatar

            Yep. “efficient code” was the thing. swapping data in and out of memory slots , “paging” , etc…

            still a lot of mil equipment that way…. develop the code on GP machines, then squeeze it down in emulators, then onto the actual platform.

            Haner would freak out if he knew they used “models” in weapon system code!

          12. LarrytheG Avatar

            test flights… analysis… code changes, rinse repeat.

    2. DJRippert Avatar

      Being voted out of office is, in my opinion, a politician’s only fear. That’s the only thing that matters to our political class.

      1. how_it_works Avatar

        It’ll make you work just hard enough to not get fired…

    3. James McCarthy Avatar
      James McCarthy

      Politicians since the nation’s founding have been situated to ignore voters, e.g., Electoral College, gerrymandering, incumbency without term limits, unlimited campaign financing.

  2. Nancy Naive Avatar
    Nancy Naive

    I dunno, Dick. Even if the Bill effects no change, it calls attention the the lunacy at the local level.

    That makes the locals look like stiff necks for refusing electronic payments for FOIA while accepting it for everything else — something the opposition will point out next election.

    Sometimes just “vocalizing” works.

  3. Ronnie Chappell Avatar
    Ronnie Chappell

    The way to minimize cost, minimize the compliance workload and ensure access to FOIA records is to require the digitalization of all government records and the inclusion of those records subject to disclosure in searchable online databases.

    1. James Wyatt Whitehead Avatar
      James Wyatt Whitehead

      I like this idea. I imagine the cost to do so is comparable to the old fashioned way.

    2. DJRippert Avatar

      That would require our government to go running headlong into the 1990s.

    3. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
      Dick Hall-Sizemore

      Much, if not all, of the records are now digitized. The issue would be the assembling by each agency of all this material into a searchable online database. A major problem could arise over the phrase “subject to disclosure”. Agencies would be tempted not to place sensitive internal documents (e-mails, internal analyses, etc.) into the database, especially if their being subject to disclosure were marginal or subject to dispute. Members of the public would assume that everything subject to disclosure would be in the database and would tend not to ask for more.

  4. Stephen Haner Avatar
    Stephen Haner

    Suddenly I’m back in Econ 101 being told by the prof that information is a scarce good, perhaps the most valuable of scarce goods. So you want it? Pay up! (It was the 70s, before Al Gore invented the Interweb…)

    There has to be a balance. Again, as the only regular here who looked at every FOIA request coming into a state agency (the AG’s office) and monitored or wrote the responses, I can tell you the floodgates being opened would overwhelm just about any agency out there. Much of my final year was dominated by the requests coming from the Mark Warner campaign looking for some baseball bat to use on Mark Earley. But the worst were fishing expeditions from law firms around the U.S. sending in open ended requests.

    1. DJRippert Avatar

      The only question in this article is whether electronic payment should be allowed. If the floodgates open, so does the cash drawer.

      What are the cost rates for FOIA requests?

      1. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
        Dick Hall-Sizemore

        My experience has been that, often, agencies do not charge. When they do charge, it is usually for one of two reasons: 1. they want to discourage the request because they don’t want to release the information or 2. complying with the request will consume a lot of agency staff time. The rates are usually based on the number of pages that need to be copied and the salary of the person(s) compiling the documents for the request (hourly rate). Sometimes, an agency will claim that a more highly paid management staff member had to be involved, either in compiling the documents or reviewing them before releasing them. That runs up the cost. Another factor is the time that needs to be spent in redacting documents.

    2. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
      Dick Hall-Sizemore

      I agree with you. There need to be limits. Otherwise, some people would send in requests just to harass the agency. For example, Roem’s bill last year established a framework: no charge for the first two hours needed for the first four requests by someone in a 31-day period. Above those limits, the charge would be capped at $33 per hour, with some exceptions. That proposal could have been the vehicle for compromise, but the GA rejected it outright. As for those out-of-state law firms, I would say charge them, and any other non-Virginia resident sending in a FOIA request, I would say charge them the actual cost. After all, they are not supporting the agency staff with their tax money.

      1. Stephen Haner Avatar
        Stephen Haner

        The key phrase was “out of state” and I could just reject on that basis, usually. Keep in mind I’m talking FOIA only, not subpoenas or interrogatories, formal case-related requests.

      2. how_it_works Avatar

        To the degree that state and local agencies get Federal funding, those out of state residents ARE supporting the agency staff with their tax money.

    3. vicnicholls Avatar

      Maybe separate personal requests from group/corporation type of requests?

  5. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
    Dick Hall-Sizemore

    Thanks. I must have had a mental block on that one. I have made the correction.

  6. FOIA is wonderful thing and it helps keep public bodies from operating in secret. However, it seems a lot of people think making a FOIA request is the only way to get information from the government. At the state and federal levels this may very well be true to a certain extent, but a lot of local governments are making a concerted effort to be truly transparent.

    If you want information from your local town, city or local government I suggest you first informally request it from the agency or department in which it is most likely to reside. Unless you are asking for personnel records or other information that is required to be protected, you might be surprised at how cooperative local government employees can be at helping you get the information you want.

    And I suppose it might even be worth trying at the state or local level.

    I once spent some time as a Department Head for a small county in Virginia. Those who ran that county ascribed to the idea of transparency in government, so I never refused a direct request for releasable information from any person or entity. People who contacted me or my staff and directly asked for such information/data almost always got it in a more timely manner than those who went straight to a FOIA request.

    This is because once FOIA was invoked there were strict rules regarding who could transmit information and in what form, and records had to be kept to show compliance with the law. Every FOIA request had to be “kicked upstairs”, and no one in my department (including me) was allowed to directly contact the person who filed the request. My department would retrieve and compile the requested information, of course, but it had to pass through several other sets of hands before it got released to the requester.

    1. how_it_works Avatar

      My experience with local government in Virginia was that:

      1)Any request made to any employee for information is a FOIA request and all the normal FOIA rules apply. FOIA requests do not need to be on paper; they can be verbal. The requester need not state that the request is a FOIA request.

      2)If that employee has access to the information required to fill FOIA request, they can do so.

      I am unaware of any requirement at the state level for documentation to be kept regarding the filling of FOIA requests. That must be a local requirement.

      1. The record-keeping may very well have been a local requirement, all I know is that we did it.

        1. how_it_works Avatar

          Did you get any FOIA training? The city attorney did FOIA training where I worked.

    2. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
      Dick Hall-Sizemore

      How_it_works is correct. Any request for public records is automatically subject to the FOIA provisions, no matter how formal or informal the request. The law provides, “The request need not make reference to this chapter in order to invoke the provisions of this chapter or to impose the time limits for response by a public body. Any public body that is subject to this chapter and that is the custodian of the requested records shall promptly, but in all cases within five working
      days of receiving a request, provide the requested records to the requester or make one of the following responses in writing:….” (Sec. 2.-2-3704, para. B.)

      The requirement you cited that once FOIA were invoked, the request had to be kicked upstairs with records being kept was a local policy.

  7. walter smith Avatar
    walter smith

    This is pretty much window dressing still.
    All sorts of latitude besides posting fees.
    How you interpret the many exceptions
    How you search
    I think UVA intentionally does a more expensive method of searching to discourage further action.
    Misinterpreting the request…on purpose
    Answering very literally to tell only part of the story, requiring follow up, with then further delays. I am still waiting for a Feb 1 request, now twice delayed, where I know UVA will answer it is all working papers…
    Working papers is too broad and too easy to hide everything. It is hard to argue why something isn’t a working paper when you don’t know the context to contest…

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