Who uses FOIA? Journalists, lawyers, vendors and ‘the average Joe’ – Daily Press
If you respond to Freedom of Information Act requests in York County, you know who Robert Holloway is.
The county resident has asked for so much information, it’s hard for Gail Whittaker, the county’s spokeswoman and FOIA officer, to narrow it down. A sampling of his requests includes emails between local officials, contracts, city-commissioned studies and how EPA standards are being addressed at the Yorktown Crescent housing development.
Holloway accounted for more than 100 of the 124 requests that Whittaker received from January 2016 through this March. But he is the rare exception among FOIA requesters in the Peninsula’s counties and cities.
Besides public meetings, Virginia’s FOIA might be a person’s most significant legal right in seeing how a city or county operates. It’s the law that allows anyone to ask for records related to government bodies â accident reports, contracts, site plans, emails and salary databases, to name a few.
The Daily Press submitted its own FOIA requests to see who is curious for information â basically, a FOIA for FOIAs. Requests made in a 90-day period between December 2016 and March 2017 show area residents usually limit their requests to police reports. Requests for all other information are dominated by lawyers, consultants and research firms, who typically say why they’re requesting information, or journalists.
Five requests of more than 50 made to the Newport News city manager’s office appeared to be from someone not associated with a newspaper, a TV station, a law firm, a business or consultant.
“Just your run-of-the-mill citizen who’s not an attorney or doing it as part of their job â we don’t get a lot,” said Kim Lee, Newport News city spokeswoman and one of the city’s FOIA officers. “We’re not overwhelmed from requests like those.”
Gloucester County had six FOIA requests in a 90-day period between December 2016 and this March. Most of those come from the media or average citizens, but it’s a small sample size, said Christi Lewis, the county’s spokeswoman and FOIA officer.
The city of Hampton’s Lola Perkins, who is a paralegal and helps review FOIA requests, estimated that about 40 percent of their FOIAs are submitted by people not from a business or law firm, a “vast majority” related to getting police reports. Isle of Wight’s six FOIA requests included one accident report and just one request from an Isle of Wight resident.
The situation is the same in York County, with Holloway, who unsuccessfully ran for the county’s Board of Supervisors in 2015, as the familiar exception.
“Not a whole lot of average citizens,” Whittaker said. “It is limited to mostly Mr. Holloway, a few other people if they suddenly have an interest in something that has impacted their neighborhood or a potential property that may go near their neighborhood.”
Holloway declined to be interviewed for this story, but he pointed to an interview he did this month with the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, an open-records advocate group. In the interview, posted online, he says he started routinely making FOIA requests in 2006 over concerns with a construction job that was damaging his and his neighbors’ properties.
“(Public officials) begin to look at themselves as the ‘owner’ of the community they are serving and resent being questioned by we commoners,” Holloway said in the interview. “They believe they know what is best for their municipality. FOIA gives the average Joe the ability to see inside the closed ranks.”
Collecting evidence for clients
Some of the businesses that routinely submit FOIAs are collecting proof to support an argument as part of a job âresearching a client’s dog bite claim, for example, or sussing out an insurance claim.
The Richmond-based Joel Bieber Law Firm asked Isle of Wight County for any records related to an accident that its client was involved in at the Carrsville Refuse and Recycling Center. Assistant County Administrator Don Robertson, whose response included photos and reports from witnesses, charged $11.61, calculated at a rate of 50 cents for 20 hours of searching for the right records. FOIA allows localities to charge fees large enough to cover the cost of responding.
A paralegal for McCormack and McCormack, a Virginia Beach-based law firm, asked Newport News for 911 calls that their client made on specific dates last fall. That client was facing charges in Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court.
“We do have insurance companies who will call in and ask for police reports, any sort of camera footage, related to accidents or 911 calls or anything,” Lee said. “They have their own records division that handles all of those FOIA requests.”
Information to help business
Other businesses seek information that might help them get a better idea for their market or help them finish a job.
Darren Post, manager at the Pool Store in Gloucester, asked Newport News, York County, Poquoson and Gloucester for the names and addresses of those with in-ground and above-round pools. He received at least part of his request in each locality because certain pools must have city permits.
Genevieve Henderson, with EBI Consulting, which has offices across the country, asked Newport News for any contamination assessments at the former Chase packaging plant at 1300 Marshall Ave. because the firm was doing an environmental study in the area.
Research and data analysis firms routinely submit requests, some on an annual basis. ACME Research, for example, annually asks Newport News for all city expenses more than $10,000. HireWheel, a website that helps people find home contractors, asked York County for all building permit and certificates of occupancy for 104 Barrington Lane. But, since the requestor lives outside of Virginia, the request was denied.
In general, local residents submit FOIAs to get police reports from accidents. And sometimes, people are curious about themselves.
One Gloucester resident, Neal Kriete, asked Gloucester County whether the sheriff’s office had received complaints any about him.
In Hampton, Roger Iles asked if any complaints, concerns or issues about him and his wife were submitted by any of his five neighbors. Hampton gave him three police reports and an unspecified number of permits and daily worksheets from Animal Control. The city initially wanted to charge Iles $600 for the response, but that was reduced to $200 because he allowed the city to go past the legal limit of seven days to respond. The city declined to give him emails because they were conversations between an attorney and client.