Charlottesville officials are reviewing an administrative policy to standardize responses and charges for open records requests.
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 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 on the books 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 on city officials’ credit card usage 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.”
Earlier this summer, the city requested $265 from The Daily Progress for its request for a list of employee salaries and reimbursements. After the newspaper removed the reimbursements from the requests, the information was provided at no charge.
In April, the city said a request for emails between Police Chief RaShall Brackney or her secretary and City Council or Police Civilian Review Board members, as well as emails between CRB members and councilors, would cost $3,000 and require a $700 deposit.
City officials also requested $500 for Brackney’s emails regarding media coverage since she started working in June.
Councilor Heather Hill said she didn’t know the specifics of the proposal, but said, “We just need to have a better process in place.”
“I certainly feel there’s more value in us having us a standardized process that staff and the public are aware of, but how do we strike that balance of transparency with taxing our staff,” she said. “We want to have something standard to make sure we’re handling things consistently, as well.”