Once a year, news outlets, civic groups, schools and other stakeholders participate in a national effort to support and promote access to information and an open government. As a part of the initiative, the Herald-Progress performed a countywide Freedom of Information audit to determine how accessible information is to citizens. In Hanover, retrieving information from all aspects of the county proved to be a cinch—custodians of the records responded in a timely manner and responses were received in the same fashion.
Because the H-P covers only one county, primarily one reporter sent a handful of electronic requests March 3. The reporter asked for:
-Salary and allowances for the county administrator, town manager, town mayor and all Hanover high school principals
-Annual financial disclosure statements for the chairman of the Board of Supervisors, county administrator, town manager and town mayor
– Felony criminal incident reports from the past three months from Hanover Sheriff’s Office and Ashland Police Department
Many newspapers such as The Daily Press and The Petersburg Progress Index have performed similar types of audits, but on different scales, to assess how transparent governments are.
“When we talk about information from government agencies, as taxpayers, we all have a right to that information,” said Joan Conners, a communications professor at Randolph-Macon College.
Conners added that although she hopes governments and other entities are transparent, she recognizes that’s not always the case.
At R-MC, Conners teaches an assortment of media classes including a course on communication law and ethics where she covers some of the Freedom of Information Act. She said she points out to her classes that although people may want to know specific information, such as from a corporation, they don’t have the right to know everything.
During the audit, the county, schools and both the Hanover Sheriff’s Office and Ashland Police Department (APD) responded the same day to notify the reporter that they received the request. All the information that was asked for was sent to the H-P within the deadline of five business days from when the FOIA request was sent.
At the end, the H-P wasn’t charged for any of the information; however, initially the Hanover Sheriff’s Office said there was a cost of $17, which was an hourly rate. Then, Col. David R. Hines, sheriff, waived the fee.
There was some slight confusion with the language of the initial request to the APD. Chip Watts, the police department’s spokesperson, said the scope of the request was a little vague and the timeframe was broad. Afterwards, the reporter refined the scope from felony police reports to just crime incident reports with only the information that isn’t withheld due to a FOIA exemption in Section 2.2-3706 (2) (a) of the Code of Virginia, “information, including complaints, court orders, memoranda, notes, diagrams, maps, photographs, correspondence, reports, witness statements, and evidence relating to a criminal investigation or prosecution.” In addition, the timeframe was changed from the past three months to the last 30 days.
The reporter encountered one issue when attempting to retrieve the necessary records from the Town of Ashland within the aforementioned timeframe. It is important to note that the Herald-Progress contacted Town Attorney Andrea Erard, but discovered later that the correct point of contact is Town Clerk Dallin Kimble. When the reporter did not receive any correspondences from the town, they contacted Ashland public officials and later learned that request wasn’t ever delivered to Erard due to a misspelling in the email address.
In the case that this situation occurs when a citizen is seeking information from a public official or agency, Alan Gernhardt, Virginia FOIA Advisory Council Attorney, recommended citizens pick up a phone and call to check up on their request.
“Things do happen,” Gernhardt said.
He explained that in most cases when there is a delayed response often the case is that the record custodian may have been on vacation or there were issues with individual’s email. However, if clear communication doesn’t result in the requested information, Gernhardt advised that’s when it’s appropriate to take legal action, but that’s more of a last resort.
In cases where citizens may encounter problems accessing information, Conners said that is something she would be worrisome about especially because it’s possible they could receive the “cold shoulder” from agencies whereas the media may have more power to obtain the records they need. She added that it may be in a citizen’s best interest to issue another request.
View results of the audit in this week’s edition of the Herald-Progress (75c for one copy, $32 for a year subscription).
To learn more about Sunshine Week, visit sunshineweek.org.