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Posted at 1:01 PM ET, 08/17/2010

Virginia's FOI law: What's good and what's bad

By Paige Winfield Cunningham

If you understand when you’re asked if you’ve done a “foy-ya,” then you’re familiar with the Freedom of Information Act (shorthand: FOIA).

Very generally, the law requires governments to provide the public with documents and records when requested. Specific laws vary from state to state.

How does Virginia’s FOIA law compare? Megan Rhyne, director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, says it’s neither among the worst laws in the country, nor is it among the best. She offers a summary of what’s good and not-so-good about our state’s law:

The Good:

-- Officials have five days to assemble the requested records. They can ask for another seven days if they need more time. Reasonable? Rhyne thinks so.

-- If you work for the government and you make more than $10,000, your salary is public.

-- E-mails, electronic records and records on private computers are all considered public records IF they were generated while conducting public business.

-- You don’t need an attorney to file a FOIA-compliance lawsuit in district court.

-- Virginia legislators approved a FOIA council in 1999. If you call the council, they’ll answer any of your FOIA-related questions. I’ve done this before, and they’re very helpful.

The Bad:

-- Criminal investigation records aren’t made public. Police only have to give basic facts of cases, but, as Rhyne points out, a lot of the important information is in police reports.

-- You can only appeal to Virginia’s FOIA law if you’re a resident of the state.

-- There aren’t specific limits on how much an agency can charge to meet your request. $240,000 to extract records from a database? Rhyne doesn’t think so. ...

-- What happens if an agency violates FOIA law? In Florida, violations can be charged as first-degree misdemeanors and result in jail time. In Virginia, violators can be fined up to $1,000 the first time and up to $2,500 subsequent times. But Rhyne says she’s seen only one penalty imposed, and it was overturned in appeals court.

Paige Winfield Cunningham is an investigative reporter and managing editor at Old Dominion Watchdog. The Local Blog Network is a group of bloggers from around the D.C. region who have agreed to make regular contributions to All Opinions Are Local.

By Paige Winfield Cunningham  | August 17, 2010; 1:01 PM ET
Categories:  HotTopic, Local blog network, Virginia  
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You can fine a government agency? I'm sure that will make a difference.

Posted by: jiji1 | August 17, 2010 5:18 PM | Report abuse

This is useful. I hope the Virginia Press Association sees your post.

Peter Galuszka

Posted by: pgaluszka | August 17, 2010 9:48 PM | Report abuse

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