Thursday, September 28, 2023

Report: VA State Agencies, Public Colleges Not Complying with FOIA

A report by the Virginia Coalition for Open Government finds some reasons state agency websites weren’t in compliance with Virginia’s Freedom of Information Law is they didn’t say what kind of records they maintained, didn’t say what records the agency withholds, and there was no link to FOIA on the agency’s homepage. (Adobe Stock)

RICHMOND– A new report finds Virginia’s state agencies are failing to post key Freedom of Information Act links.

The report from the Virginia Coalition for Open Government finds of 114 state agency websites, less than 12% provided information about the rights and responsibilities of Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act.

On 11% of websites, the information simply couldn’t be found. Megan Rhyne, executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, said improvement requires commitment.

“The rules have been in place for a long long time,” said Rhyne, “and I understand that sometimes there’s going to be a disconnect between the people who create websites and the ones who do FOIA. You know, they might not be talking to each other. But, it’s just really a statutory requirement.”

She added that some websites may not be in total compliance with FOIA’s rules, but noted that they should be in better compliance than how they were found.

Other information in the report finds about 85% of the websites had information regarding costs for providing records on FOIA. But, only 12% of websites had the most up to date language from 2022.

A combined 72% of websites either quoted outdated language or merely paraphrased the current statute.

But, the report didn’t just examine state agencies. It also examined compliance among Virginia’s public colleges and universities.

The report found only 7 of the 17 websites for these schools had direct links to the rights and responsibilities of the state’s Freedom of Information Act.

Rhyne said FOIA is a citizen’s law, which should make it easy for people to understand how their government works.

“Citizen’s are not necessarily well tuned in to how a particular government is organized,” said Rhyne. “They need to know where do I go to submit my FOIA request. FOIA itself is also very complex.”

There were some anomalies with the report, meaning certain agencies aren’t subject to Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act.

One such anomaly is the state’s Supreme Court, which has taken the position that it’s not subject to FOIA – not for its case records or administrative records in the Office of Executive Secretary.

However, there is an internal process for requesting administrative records similar to FOIA, albeit more restrictive.

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