You say sunshine, we say FOIA
Reporters know one of the greatest tools for keeping the public informed is FOIA—the Freedom of Information Act. As Virginia Code notes: “The affairs of government are not intended to be conducted in an atmosphere of secrecy since at all times the public is to be the beneficiary of any action taken at any level of government.” Federal and state FOIA laws ensure that public meetings and information are truly available to the public.
Sunshine Week, an annual event to promote freedom of information and open government, falls around father-of-the-Constitution James Madison’s March 16 birthday. Smart Cville and the Virginia Coalition for Open Government hosted a FOIA panel March 25 for people appointed to boards and commissions, and we figured it’s never too late to share some FOIA highlights.
“We organized this event because we value transparency and knew others, within government and outside, have similar values,” says Smart Cville founder Lucas Ames. “If we’re truly committed to transparency and openness, it’s important that we take steps to promote those ideals, including educating local citizens who sit on boards and commissions that fall under the Virginia Freedom of Information Act.”
Megan Rhyne, executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, regularly fields FOIA questions, and ran down a few of the most common.
1. How to request: A FOIA request doesn’t have to be written, but it’s a good idea. An email can read: Under the Freedom of Information Act, I’m requesting all records from DATE to DATE that deal with X. Please provide an estimate to fulfill this request.
2. Fees: People aren’t always aware that they can be charged for copies of documents, particularly those that involve a lot of staff time to pull together. Government bodies can give you an estimate—but you have to ask for it, says Rhyne.
3. Response: A government body has five days to reply. Typical exemptions to FOIA: police investigative files, personnel records, working papers.
4. Not exempt: Messages dealing with public business on personal devices and in personal accounts. Government employees’ salaries must be disclosed.
5. Meetings: FOIA also mandates that the public be notified of meetings of elected and appointed officials, and these meetings are supposed to be open to the public. But the law does not require public comment, which surprises a lot of citizens, says Rhyne. Public notice of a meeting is required, except for staff meetings. Three or more members of an elected or appointed body cannot meet for coffee to talk about public business unless the public is notified.
Quote of the week
“In Charlottesville and around the globe, we stand firmly in stating: There are not very fine people on both sides of this issue.”—Charlottesville Police Chief RaShall Brackney on the racist threat that closed city schools
Last spring, Governor Ralph Northam was here to tout construction software company CoConstruct’s $485,000 investment that would create 69 new jobs in Albemarle County. On March 22, CoConstruct announced it was moving to downtown Charlottesville and will lease 40,000 square feet in the five-story office building under construction on Garrett Street. 3TWENTY3 bought the property from Oliver Kuttner for $5.4 million in October.
The National Transportation Safety Board released its 1,600-page report on the January 31, 2018, collision of an Amtrak train and a Time Disposal garbage truck. The NTSB concluded the truck went around downed crossing arms and driver Dana Naylor, who was acquitted of criminal charges last month, was impaired by marijuana and gabapentin, a drug used to control seizures or relieve nerve pain, for which he didn’t have a prescription.
Developer Justin Shimp’s plans to build the controversial Hogwaller Farm, an apartment complex and urban farm concept that would straddle Charlottesville and Albemarle, were put on hold when City Council voted 3-2 to deny a rezoning request necessary to build an on-site greenhouse. Shimp says he’s planning to pursue a similar opportunity on the property, according to Charlottesville Tomorrow.
Charlottesville launched its Business Equity Loan program earlier in March for existing businesses whose owners are socially disadvantaged either by race, ethnicity, or gender. The city allocated $100,000 to the Wes Bellamy initiative, and applicants who have been in business for at least six months can apply for loans from up to $25,000, according to Hollie Lee, an economic development specialist.