It’s Sunshine Week, that time each year when media outlets through the country remind their audiences of the importance of open government. (The Daily Progress editorialized on the topic on Tuesday.) I’d like to take this opportunity to get one simple message across about open government, and that’s this: All you have to do to find out something about government is ask.
Although it is a convenient shorthand phrase, there really is no such thing as “making a FOIA request.” Sure, Virginia has a Freedom of Information Act (here’s a detailed explanation of how it works), but it’s so simple that you don’t really need to know much about it. It says, simply, that when you ask a local or state unit of government for information, they’re obliged to provide it to you promptly. You don’t have to say “I’m filing a request under FOIA.” You don’t have to explain why you want it. You just have to ask. If you want the minutes from a committee meeting, if you want to know how much money was spent on a traffic improvement, if you want to know who got the contract to install new computers, you just have to ask. They have the right to tell you that your request is going to cost money—they can charge the actual cost associated with them providing that information. It’s best to submit requests in writing (e-mail is fine), so that you have a written record of the request. There are a whole mess of exemptions to FOIA: personnel records, administrative investigations, and security records, among others, but the government will be happy to inform you if your question can’t be answered.
I’ve submitted many requests to the city and the county over the past decade, and they’ve always been answered completely and promptly. The few that I’ve submitted to the state have likewise worked out just fine.
Still feeling nervous at the prospect of making a FOIA request? Check out these simple how-to videos about making a FOIA request in Virginia.