FOIA in the news
Published 6:41 pm Friday, November 12, 2021
By Sherri Story
Four years ago, I could not have told you what the FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) law was all about. But since becoming part of a board that, in my opinion, is less than willing to be transparent or forthcoming with information, I would now say that it is one of the most important pieces of legislation that has helped me do my job as an elected school board member for the public.
The FOIA statute is a major law “for the people” that keeps our government entities accountable, transparent, and truthful. It is a law that especially aids minorities, outsiders, and citizens who are purposely and intentionally sidelined.
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Every state of the union has a FOIA law, some calling it The Sunshine Law. The Virginia FOIA law is found at 2.2-3700 in the Code of Virginia. There is also a federal FOIA law (FOIA.gov) that gives any citizen of the United States the right and opportunity to ask for information from governmental agencies. Each state has a few different nuances to its FOIA law, but basically the law is there to serve both citizens and our uncensored media. This is a basic tenet of a free and open society as guaranteed by the Constitution of the United States.
In Virginia, Citizens for Open Government is one of the agencies that will freely answer citizens’ questions about the FOIA law. Anyone can contact them through a simple email. The FOIA Council of Virginia is also an agency that is available to answer questions for citizens. I have received valuable, free help from both.
Simple FOIA requests are to be free to citizens and, in Virginia, the requests are to be answered within five business days after the day the request is received. Does it cost the requestor money? The law does provide the possibility for charging citizens the actual cost of preparing documents. However, as I have experienced, this can also be used by public agencies to inhibit and intimidate citizens. As a school board member, I have been regularly refused documents from the school district. For instance, I was refused elementary reading scores, e.g., PALS information. And so, rather than fighting this battle with the school district, I went ahead and received this information as a citizen from the VDOE (Virginia Department of Education) directly with a simple FOIA request to them. There was no charge. When I have submitted FOIA requests to the school district, I have almost always been charged by SPS for the information, as have other taxpaying citizens.
I have also submitted FOIA requests from the City of Suffolk and I have never been charged for these requests other than a minimal fee for a video. The city’s responses have been polite, efficient and the documents have all been available in digital formats. They also keep a record of all FOIA requests monthly, but unfortunately Suffolk Public Schools does not.
As a citizen, to submit a FOIA request, it only requires a simple email to the FOIA officer of the public body. Every public body is to have a designated FOIA officer. For information from SPS, FOIA requests can be emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org. Any email request for public information, including finances, automatically constitutes a FOIA request. There are a few exceptions, such as student or employee discipline issues.
When submitting a FOIA request, consider a few of the following parameters: make it concise and specific for the document(s) or information you desire, include specific dates if applicable, keep the request as narrow as possible that will serve your needs, and ask for any potential cost up front.
Citizens have a responsibility and a civic duty to request information regarding the operations of public governmental agencies as does the local media. All finances of public entities are and should be an open book to citizens including salaries, contracts, income streams and expenditures.
Any publicly elected official who views the expectation to comply with all FOIA laws as a ‘weapon’ used by citizens is clearly not for transparency or accountability. It is unacceptable.
Sherri Story is a Suffolk City School Board member. Email her at email@example.com.