David Cuillier Comments on the Strength of Virginia’s FOIA Laws
David Cuillier, director of the Brechner Freedom of Information Project, is quoted in “Curious Commonwealth Asks: Are Virginia Open Records Laws Weaker Than Other States?” published on the website for Virginia Public Media on Oct. 25.
The story investigates the strength of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) laws in Virginia and if they foster governmental transparency.
According to Cuillier, some aspects of Virginia FOIA laws have less government transparency compared to other states.
“Virginia is among about one-third of states that can charge for the time it takes staff to search for and redact records — which some agencies interpret as a requirement to charge. It can be a ‘deal killer’ for some,” said Cuillier.
“There have been judgments in Washington state that nearly bankrupted small towns,” he said. “The judge had to reduce the payout to save the town. That’s when city attorneys and others start paying attention.”
Cuillier said Virginia requires record keepers to respond to requests or send records in about a week. He said some other states give agencies a few weeks, and the remaining states have no deadlines. Instead, these states have language requiring records to be sent in a “reasonably prompt” manner. But Cuillier said the timelines outlined in FOIA laws like Virginia’s are great in theory, but not always in practice.
“The reasonably prompt states are actually reasonably prompt. In general, they’re faster than the ones who have deadlines,” he said.
Cuillier suggested another research-backed approach. He said strongly worded requests are also tied to higher compliance. But Cuillier suggested states should also force agencies to pay up if they don’t comply with FOIA laws.
“Sometimes this is what it takes to get them to take these requests seriously,” he said.