Robert Holloway, a York County resident, has been chasing public records since 2006, initially because of concerns about silt runoff into the Poquoson River and now because he likes to see what his county is doing. He regularly submits requests for a range of records, from county salaries to emails between county supervisors.
Stewart Fleming has spent more than 20 years keeping tabs on Newport News property assessments. He, too, regularly asks for public records, usually visiting or submitting requests to the city assessor's office, invoking the Virginia Freedom of Information Act.
They are staunch advocates of the state's 45-year-old FOIA law, which gives residents of the commonwealth access to public information kept by localities, school divisions, departments, agencies and the state.
And they often have to pay for the information they receive.
Virginia's open records law allows government entities to charge citizens for costs involved in fulfilling public records requests.
Depending on the size and scope of the requet, that cost can run into hundreds of dollars.
Megan Rhyne, executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, said costs include research, search and preparation time required to fulfill a citizen's request.
"The charges are supposed to be reasonable," she said. "It's the cost to the government."
College of William and Mary political science professor John McGlennon said localities have different perspectives on how somebody should request the information. Many explain the process on their websites.
"Some charge more," he said. "Some make citizens jump through more hoops. Obviously you have to justify the charges."
Sometimes public records are free.
York County spokeswoman Gail Whittaker said the county does not always charge to fulfill requests.
"Some requests are simple and do not take much time," she said.
Newport News spokeswoman Kim Lee agreed.
"If the information is easily and immediately accessible, Newport News tends not to charge," she said.
Costs can add up
But for requests that take time to fulfill, the charges can take citizens by surprise.
The law allows government entities to charge citizens the hourly wage of employees fulfilling a request. "We do try to get the lowest paid person who can do the work to do it," Lee said. Whittaker said York County takes a similar approach.
For requests that involve large amounts of data or extensive searches, the costs can add up.
Virginia allows government entities to ask for payment up front if fulfilling a request will cost more than $200. The citizen has a right to a detailed breakdown of the costs.
Citizens can ask for an estimate of costs along with their request for information. Rhyne said that gives citizens an opportunity to revise or narrow their requests if the charges are more than they anticipated. Whittaker said being as specific as possible can help reduce costs.
They also can try negotiating, such as allowing the locality or division more time to fulfill the request at a potentially lower rate. They also can ask to view records rather than request paper copies, or request that it be sent by email.
If a citizen wants to search through several records in an effort to find information and to keep costs down, York will allow them to do so at the county offices. They can even use a county computer to search databases. "A staff member sits with the citizen, but the information requester does all the work," Whittaker said. That keeps costs down for the citizen. Lee said it is important to remember that even asking to look at a record can carry a cost associated with finding it and making it available.
Some get frustrated
Lee said some organizations attempt to have the fees waived because federal open records laws allow exemptions. Virginia's statute does not.
McGlennon, who also is a James City County supervisor, said localities and school divisions should help citizens navigate the open records process.
"Citizens ought to be able to get information without great difficulty," McGlennon said.
He said citizens usually are very specific about what they want, but they may be looking for analysis rather than records. "For example, if someone asks for salary information for all employees earning more than $25,000 a year, but really wants to know how much time employees spend on tasks, they're going to be frustrated because that information is not spelled out in a salary list," he said.
Rhyne said people who routinely ask for public information, such as Holloway and Fleming, usually are charged, especially if their requests are for large amounts of information. Lee said citizens who make frequent requests for information know they will be charged and do not often balk.
But even regulars can become frustrated. Fleming said he has been asked to pay costs for large batches of data, even when specifying he would be happy to receive the information in electronic format. Holloway, who has submitted hundreds of FOIA requests to York County since 2008, also has complained about high charges associated with his requests. Whittaker said the county developed a fee formula for retrieving and processing emails, based on his requests. And Holloway has been able to reduce costs by narrowing the scope of his requests.
William and Mary law professor Jim Heller said citizens who make frequent requests for information, even if they are asking for large amounts of data, should have no more difficulty with the process than those who rarely submit requests.
"Gadflies can be annoying," he said. "But they can be good, too."
Reporter Amanda Kerr contributed to this report
Tips for keeping costs down
•Be as specific as possible.
•Ask for an estimate of costs before the entity begins fulfilling your request.
•Be willing to revise and refine your request if the charges seem high.
•Ask for a complete breakdown of costs.
•Ask if you can do some of the work yourself.
For more information about Virginia's FOIA law and tips for citizens, visit the Virginian Coalition for Open Government website: http://www.opengovva.org/Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun