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Low Marks in Virginia on FOI Test

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Low Marks in Virginia on FOI Test

Article excerpt

Echoes results of sweep by Indiana papers

Virginia residents seeking public records only get them a little more than half the time, reveals a statewide investigation by 14 Virginia newspapers.

The probe pulled together more than 100 reporters, editors and newspaper employees from most of the state's dailies. The state's five largest newspapers planned the project, along with Media General Inc.'s Virginia newspapers and The Associated Press.

In making the Freedom of Information (FOI) requests, newspaper employees who were sent to gather the information were told not to identify themselves as reporters to officials, but rather as average citizens seeking public documents.

The project was aimed at gauging how the public -- rather than journalists -- fare in getting access to documents, which under state law is open to any resident. While the state FOI law says residents are entitled to public records -- mostly without question -- that is not often the case.

This is only the second time that newspapers have shared resources and collaborated on such a wide-ranging FOI effort. The first project was conducted by seven Indiana papers which published a series on open records compliance in that state.

The Virginia study showed the overall compliance rate among a number of local government agencies was 58%. There were different compliance rates among agencies, with law enforcement being the worst offender while health departments in most instances readily providing the information.

The newspaper project is available online. (Richmond Times-Dispatch: http://www.gatewayva.com/rtd/special/foi/ and the Daily Press: http://dailypress.com/extra.lover.him)

For the most part, evidence about the difficulty of getting public records has been anecdotal. The open records audit of government agencies was conducted over the summer in order to determine the extent of the problem and what were some of the barriers preventing residents from getting public documents. The newspapers reported the series recently. The timing of the findings coincides with a state legislative panel that is gathering information to possibly revamp the current FOI law.

In early August, reporters, news clerks, interns and other Virginia newspaper employees fanned out to 135 cities and counties asking for specific public records. The records were sought from school boards, administrators' offices, health departments and police and sheriff's offices. On an individual basis, some government agencies fared better than others in complying with the law.

The worst offender in denying records access was sheriff's and police departments, with a compliance rate of 16%.

When seeking the total compensation of high school football coaches, the compliance rate was 47%; the compliance rate for a state-mandated report on school violence and crime was 72%; getting a copy of the most recent travel voucher for a county administrator or city manager was 73%; and obtaining a copy of a health inspection of a local restaurant was 88%.

When the law enforcement compliance rate is removed from the overall findings, the compliance rate shoots up to almost 70%.

Project editor John Denniston of the Richmond Times-Dispatch, one of the architects of the investigation, says that the newspapers planned to run the series whichever way the audit turned out.

"I didn't know what to expect and we decided early on that we would report on whatever we found. If we found 100 percent compliance, that was going to be the project," says Denniston, who was surprised by the 47% compliance dealing with coaching compensation.

In some instances, he says, newspaper employees were called by coaches asking why they requested the information.

"A lot of the responses I've gotten from people, school superintendents said that 'if you came to me there would be no problem, why did you go to my secretary. …

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