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.

Reasonable charges

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.