City, schools provide records

Published 12:03 am Sunday, November 29, 2015

Four public offices in Suffolk provided requested public records in accordance with state law — though one response took several days — during a statewide project conducted by the media to test compliance with the Freedom of Information Act.

As described in the related story, “Open records? Sometimes,” reporters from 13 different news organizations fanned out to about 40 localities on the morning of Nov. 5 and requested records that are specifically allowed to be released in the state’s sunshine law.

The Suffolk News-Herald sent a reporter to city and school offices to get the records.

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The reporter visited the city’s finance office to get the salary and allowances of the city manager. She was directed to the Freedom of Information Office, where Media and Community Relations Manager Tim Kelley helped her get the records she requested. She also reviewed statements of economic interest for the mayor and city manager at the city clerk’s office.

The reporter said nobody at the office questioned who she was, who she worked for or why she wanted the records — none of which makes a difference, according to the Freedom of Information Act.

The reporter also visited Suffolk Police Department headquarters to ask for incident reports from overnight and got a cooler reception.

“I was told that the lieutenant had to go over the request, and that if I didn’t have what they considered a valid reason for the information, that I ‘might not get it,’” the reporter said. The reporter was asked who she was and why she wanted the document. “The woman was pretty flustered and suspicious,” the reporter said.

However, she later received the information by email on Nov. 12, within the five-working-days period allowed by the Freedom of Information Act.

“We pride ourselves on the customer service we provide and our responsiveness in dealing with Freedom of Information requests, whether from the media or the public,” city spokeswoman Diana Klink wrote in a response to questions about the city’s reaction to the reporter’s visit.

The reporter also visited Suffolk Public Schools headquarters, where she asked for salaries and allowances for the city’s three high school principals.

The reporter said she received a handwritten list of the salaries but not allowances.

“Under the Virginia Freedom of Information Act, citizens of Virginia are guaranteed access to public records held by public bodies, public officials and public employees,” wrote schools spokeswoman Bethanne Bradshaw in an emailed response to questions about the school division’s reaction to the reporter’s visit.

“Suffolk Public Schools recognizes that because public dollars fund the school division’s operations, SPS records are open to all citizens unless a specific, statutory exemption applies.”

Bradshaw added that while she was able to fulfill the verbal request while the reporter waited, a written request is preferred “for record-keeping.” It’s also not always possible to get the information immediately, Bradshaw said.

“It is important for the public to understand that responding to a FOIA request often involves several SPS employees and sometimes several hours of research to compile the information,” she wrote. “The school division is allowed to charge for staff time and other costs associated with supplying the requested records.”