CHARLOTTESVILLE — Charlottesville officials are reviewing an administrative policy to standardize responses and charges for requests for open records.

In its current form, the proposed policy would charge requesters in 15-minute increments for time to assemble documents under the Virginia Freedom of Information Act after an employee spent 15 minutes on the requests. The charge would be based on the pay rate of the employee fulfilling the request.

Adoption of the policy does not require City Council approval. City Manager Tarron Richardson would sign off on it, but the proposal could change before it is finalized.

The state law allows localities to “make reasonable charges not to exceed its actual cost incurred in accessing, duplicating, supplying or searching for the requested records.”

Under FOIA, the city is not required to break down costs, but localities can implement policies that direct staff to explain estimates.

Megan Rhyne, executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, said that although the law doesn’t require a cost breakdown, that has been a “normal part of the process.”

“Generally, I think the government has been very good about providing breakdowns of costs,” Rhyne said. “We might not like what they come up with, but at least it gives us a starting point to look at and determine if the charges are reasonable.”

Albemarle County starts charging in 15-minute increments after 30 minutes of work, while Richmond charges for all employee time.

Richardson said the proposal is a “positive” for the city.

“For us, as well as for the public, it keeps it consistent,” he said. “Now it’s a clear definition of what our policy is.”

The city has no policy for responding to FOIA requests, but city spokesman Brian Wheeler said he is operating under the proposed guidelines. For example, documents used in a recent Daily Progress story cost $30. Similar documents were provided in the fall at no charge.

“I think what we have to balance is the actual costs to the city to do this work with our requirements to make the records available and be transparent with the public about our work,” Wheeler said. “We understand that obligation, but we have received an immense number of FOIA requests since August 2017.”

So far this year, the city has received 292 requests, more than all of 2018, based on Wheeler’s records. The monthly average is about 48 requests.

“You don’t have to call it a FOIA request, you don’t have to invoke any magic language,” Wheeler said. “Any request for a public document is by definition an FOIA request for us.”

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