Sunshine Week, an annual celebration of open and transparent government, officially ended last Saturday.

But here in Goochland the party continues, as we have received e-mails this week from those who have submitted requests for information under the Freedom of Information Act.

Such requests, said a few local officials, are on the rise these days, as economic pressures and issues raised by budget season have prompted questions about how resources are being used.

A responsible and informed use of FOIA eases the democratic process. But how exactly does FOIA work, and why?

We reviewed The Reporters’ Guide to the Freedom of Information Act, as well as resources such as The Virginia Freedom of Information Advisory Council, to bring you a primer on its use.

What is FOIA?

The Freedom of Information Act is a tool, a metaphorical flashlight that can dissolve the darkness of misinformation and misunderstandings.

The Virginia Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) was enacted July 1, 1968. The statute ensures that citizens can ask for and receive, with certain exceptions, access to meetings and public records. The use of FOIA can promote a greater awareness of how governments are using resources to benefit the people they serve.

Under FOIA, what are considered public records?

Public records include any written or recorded document that is prepared, owned or held by a public body. Such records could be photographs or videos, electronic files such as databases, or typed reports.

Do I have to explain why I want the information, or submit my FOIA request in writing?

No. You can ask for information in any format, including e-mails, that are used by the government. You do not have to cite FOIA or the reason for your request. But be as specific as possible when requesting records, so that you will receive the information you need. Keep in mind that if the record you are asking for does not already exist, the government does not have to create one for you.

How long will it take before I receive an answer?

The government has five working days to get back to you with one of the following responses: The records you requested; a notice that the records are being withheld; a portion of the requested records; a request for an additional seven work days in which to provide a response; and/or a notice that the requested records do not exist. If any of the information is withheld, the agency must tell you why, by citing a specific exemption or statute.

What are exceptions to FOIA?

There are more than 100 exemptions to FOIA, including the following: Certain personnel records, school records that identify specific students, legal documents used for litigation or investigation, records from closed meetings, records related to the negotiation and award of certain contracts and records relating to public safety and victim identification.

Are FOIA requests free?

The government can charge you for your request, but these charges cannot be more than the actual cost of accessing, duplicating, supplying or searching for the information. If the agency decides that the costs for producing the information will probably be more than $200, they can ask you to pay a deposit. If you owe money for previous requests, the government can ask you to pay that bill before it processes your new request.

What if I don’t receive a response?

First, you can approach the government office again to resolve the issue. If this doesn’t satisfy your request, you can contact the Virginia Freedom of Information Advisory Council for additional assistance.

For more information:

The Virginia Freedom of Information Advisory Council is an excellent resource providing advice on the entire FOIA process, and can be reached at 225-3056 and http://foiacouncil.dls.virginia.gov

Other good references are the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, at www.opengovva.org and the First Amendment Center at www.firstamendmentcenter.org

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