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IF BILL GATES runs for a seat on the Stafford Board of Supervisors, our advice is to vote for someone else--at least if you intend to submit a Freedom of Information Act request to obtain public records he may possess. Under current board policy, asserting your civic right to know could cost you your house, your savings, and everything this side of your firstborn.
That's because Stafford County allows supervisors to charge FOIA petitioners the prorated equivalent of their regular-job salaries if the supervisors have to comb through nongovernmental email accounts to find and extract the sought material. This iceberg--a serious chilling of citizens' right to learn what their elected representatives are officially up to--raised its tip in February when Paul Jacobs, a Gayle Middle School teacher who serves on the Compensation Committee of the Stafford Education Association, tried to FOIA school-funding-related emails from County Administrator Anthony Romanello and Supervisors Susan Stimpson and Cord Sterling.
About three weeks later, Mr. Jacobs got his reply from Deputy Stafford County Attorney Alan Smith. The officials would comply with the teacher's request, wrote Mr. Smith, but he would have to pay these costs:
Supervisor Stimpson: $19.70
Administrator Romanello: $36.06
Supervisor Sterling: $1,240
Mrs. Stimpson evidently submitted prorated charges based on her supervisor's salary of $20,500. Mr. Romanello's charges also are based on the income from his public position. Mr. Sterling's eyebrow-raising estimate, however, is linked to his pay as vice president of the Aerospace Industries Association, where, according to his website, he "works with the CEOs of several Fortune 100 companies."
No doubt his time is valuable. As he explained to Mr. Jacobs in an email exchange, "As budget committee chair, I have thousands of budget related emails that I will need to sift through to see which relate to your request. This will likely take several hours, and I will either have to hire a lawyer to do the work, or I will need to take a vacation day."
Two questions the disinterested bystander might ask about all this are (1) Should a citizen be tagged with a FOIA fee determined by the "civilian" salary of a public official? (2) Should such an official deposit emails linked to his office into a nongovernmental account?
LOOK UP 'PUBLIC'
Expert answers to these questions may be found in a March 27 letter sent to Messrs. Smith and Romanello by Megan Rhyne, executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government. She notes, regarding Mr. Sterling's cost estimate, that the section of the state code concerning government FOIA fees refers to a "public body"--e.g., "A public body may make reasonable charges."
"This would indicate," Ms. Rhyne wrote, "that any labor charges reflect the work of government employees, officers, or agents in their official capacities, not the cost to a person in his/her individual capacity. I am doubtful that Mr. Sterling's hourly rate in his official capacity with the county amounts to roughly a $322,400 annual salary." Ouch.
As for Question 2: "[F]rom a records-management standpoint, use of personal emails and computers by public officials is problematic for precisely this reason: the difficulty in accessing and retaining the records used in the transaction of public business."
To summarize, neither Mr. Sterling nor any other public official should be calculating FOIA fees based on his or her non-elected job, and all official email exchanges should take place in government accounts that can be easily parsed by a government employee.
Note: Mr. Sterling's estimate should not be construed as a sign of greed. A unanimous March 6 Board of Supervisors resolution, which he introduced, would donate the $1,240 in projected fees to the Adopt-A-Classroom program in his Rock Hill District. (He also gives $4,100 of his supervisor's salary to the schools, a super-"tithe" that local preachers can only envy.)
But that bit of cologne doesn't de-scent Stafford's polecat of a policy that deters citizens from obtaining public information from well-paid supervisors. Mr. Romanello tells us that Supervisors Gary Snellings and Bob Thomas are working with County Attorney Charles Shumate on a revised FOIA-fee policy. Here's a suggestion: Let it facilitate freedom of information, which means that those seeking it shouldn't have to apply for a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.