by Virginia Mercury
May 19, 2023
One of the less noticed features of the Virginia Way is the long-running tendency of the commonwealth’s leaders to conduct their decision-making behind closed doors. While the Virginia Freedom of Information Act presumes all government business is by default public and requires officials to justify why exceptions should be made, too many Virginia leaders in practice take the opposite stance, acting as if records are by default private and the public must prove they should be handled otherwise.
In this feature, we aim to highlight the frequency with which officials around Virginia are resisting public access to records on issues large and small — and note instances when the release of information under FOIA gave the public insight into how government bodies are operating.
After escapes, jail won’t release staffing information
After two inmates escaped from Piedmont Regional Jail in Farmville within a 24-hour period, spurring the U.S. Marshals Service to remove all federal inmates there, WRIC-TV requested records of staffing levels at the time of the escapes, including security personnel and unfilled position numbers. The jail denied the request, saying releasing the documents would “jeopardize the safety or security” of the facility. The TV station subsequently used other public records, including board minutes, to determine at least 20 security positions have been empty since June 2022.
A surprise $3,500 bill for Richmond Gas Works records
This March, Erik Shilts, a Richmond resident and member of Beyond Methane, a group campaigning to move the city away from natural gas, requested a range of records from the Richmond Department of Public Utilities about gas line projects undertaken by the municipal utility over the past two years.
According to emails provided to the Mercury, Shilts was initially told by a city employee that the records would cost “less than $100.00” to produce and he would be notified “of any necessary adjustments to this estimate.” Shilts told the employee to proceed with the request. Two weeks later, the department informed him it had compiled the records, but they would cost $3,475.21, “an adjustment of the $100.00 estimated cost that was provided to you via email.”
Shilts said he has not collected the records due to the cost.
Parole Board no longer exempt from FOIA
Gov. Glenn Youngkin signed a new law to increase transparency surrounding the Virginia Parole Board by removing a provision in state code that exempted it from the Freedom of Information Act, instituting new monthly and annual reporting requirements and mandating public meetings whenever the board conducts its “final deliberation and vote” on granting an inmate parole. The changes follow a string of allegations against former Parole Board chair Adrianne Bennett contending she falsified records and failed to properly notify victims and prosecutors of offender releases. In a report this January, current Parole Board Chair Chadwick Dotson wrote that “in recent years, the Virginia Parole Board has operated largely in the shadows, with Board members making decisions in secret, shielded from public scrutiny.”
From the Mercury: A ‘bright line’ on open meetings
In a split decision Thursday, the Supreme Court of Virginia ruled that public bodies should adopt an expansive definition of what constitutes an open meeting under FOIA. The court rejected an interpretation of the law that only matters appearing on an official meeting agenda should be considered public business, saying it “would gut the open meeting provisions” of FOIA.
Have you experienced local or state officials denying or delaying your FOIA request? Tell us about it: [email protected]